My 96-year-old mother, without question, is the most playful person I have ever met. I walked into her room one morning while she slept and stood over her. Suddenly, to my surprise, her eyes popped wide open and she coyly said, with a twinkle in her eye, “How are you, Sonya? I’ve been waiting here for you to come in.”
Once, sometimes twice a week, I take her grocery shopping at Cub Foods. My mother, who was brought up on a farm in South Dakota during the Depression and always made sure our basement was well-stocked with canned foods, prefers the bare-bones presentation at Cub. Food for her is just food, plain and simple.
On each of our outings I act as Eagle Scout, seeking out the items on her list and pre-screening her options while she strolls for bargains or novelty foods.
The store is her turf. With the grocery cart as her walker, she confidently strolls the aisles, free from fear of falling. We pass the pistachio bin, and she boldly pops one in her mouth with a mischievous smile as if daring some newbie employee to cuff her.
These outings are a responsibility I willingly embrace to help her live independently for as long as possible. However, these trips are a challenge because I’m never more aware that the clock is ticking on time spent with her than when sharing the mundane task of strolling the concrete aisles for the best bargains.
Because the food warehouse is large and cheap and offers a variety of ethnic foods, customer watching can be a welcome distraction for me from thoughts about my mom’s dwindling energy and the inevitability of saying a final goodbye. Each time we make this trip, I am aware that she walks a little slower, gets tired a little faster and complains of more soreness in her legs. This usually triggers depressive thoughts at the end of which she is no longer there.
For me, the diversity of this suburban mecca is a welcome distraction. There are old people in every stage of mobility, women in hijabs next to women in cutoffs and flip-flops. And, of course, there are hordes of families in every shape, size and color — many of them pushing around children in those neon mushroomy-looking plastic carts like something out of a Dr. Seuss story. No one is trolling, cruising or preening. This is just one more chore in a probable list of many.
A woman in a sari passes me while video-chatting on her iPhone, as her toddler daughter in the cart screams at the top of her lungs, “I want, I want!” Her mother keeps chatting happily.
Within this hodgepodge of humanity, a meltdown seems to go largely unnoticed. Last time I was there, a mother yelled at her teenage son from halfway across the football field-sized store, “I am so pissed, where the hell have you been?” Where have you been, I thought? How much trouble could a wayward youth with a runaway cart get into in this grocery garage?
Caught up in the scene, I suddenly realize my mom is nowhere to be found.
After a few frantic moments running up and down aisles nine and 10, I finally track her down in a corner of the store, slowly and methodically roaming through a forest of paper towel packages. I watch her as she carefully selects one to her liking. I wonder, with a twinge of sadness, if this is what old age will look like for me. I am relieved when my mom breaks my train of thought with, “Let’s get out of here; I’ve got everything I need.”
We slowly make our way to the checkouts, both of us physically and emotionally exhausted. Me from trying to be patient, which isn’t my nature, and her from walking on concrete floors and the realization that she is dependent on me, which deep down I know she doesn’t like. I’m supposed to be dependent on her; that’s the contract we sign as children. This role reversal is sometimes more than we both bargained for.
With a resignation, I bag up the groceries while she pays. We both know we’ll be back to do it all over again in less than a week.
As we make our way to the front door, I try to imagine what grocery shopping will be like without her. Will I ever want to set foot in a Cub again? Who will my caretaker be since I don’t have any children? So many questions left unanswered.
We make it back to my car in one piece, and as she takes my hand for the ride back home, I take a deep, relaxing breath and realize the only thing that matters is now.
Award-winning costume designer Sonya Berlovitz has worked with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Guthrie, James Sewell Ballet and many more.