As a kid, I was pretty gullible. I’m not sure why. You’d think that as the oldest, with two younger brothers almost constantly plotting revenge against me, I’d cast a hairy eyeball at anything slightly fishy. Especially by the time I reached the lofty heights of fifth and sixth grade.
Nope. Not me. Grade school was a time I sucked in almost any story that rolled down the pike, and playground tales were the worst.
Take the time a friend of mine told me about a weekend fishing accident her older sister had. Seems that Big Sis was standing behind their dad as he cast his lure into the river. In mid-air, the hook flipped back, apparently catching the back part of Big Sis’s scalp, ripping it almost entirely from her head.
Holy cow! I was agog, visions of Big Sis standing in mute surprise on the shoreline, pasting her hair back with one hand, waiting as Dad snatched the duct tape from his tackle box. He’d just tape everything back in place, and the fishing trip would roll on like normal. Whew!
Then there was the brother-sister duo in our school. Lisa was a year younger than I; her brother, Billy, was a year older. Both were slightly unkempt, chubby brown-haired kids. I checked out their yard every time the bus stopped to pick them up. Their parents remained mysteriously behind the curtains, never waving Lisa and Billy off to school, or running out with a forgotten lunchbox. For all we knew, Lisa and Billy had no parents. Someone, though, collected large metal scraps of things that littered the yard. It was amazing that Lisa and Billy made it to the bus in one piece.
At that day’s mid-morning recess, we got a glimpse of the inner workings of the family. Billy was in the distance, playing with the other boys, when Lisa shared a flabbergasting tidbit:
Billy could remove his eye!
Yep. Take the sucker completely out, then put it back in again. I didn’t ask which eye it was – for all I knew, this was an interchangeable talent, both eyes capable of this feat!
I could feel the hair tingling on my arms as I looked at Billy in the distance, innocently playing football, baseball, whateverball. It didn’t matter – all that mattered was that he could take his eye out!
Did I ever consider the impossibility of such a stunt? Like Billy’s eye was somehow minus the optic nerve connecting it to his brain and if he felt like it, he could just shove the eye in his jacket pocket if he was too lazy to put it back in the socket?
Nope. I swallowed this one, just like the other one, hook, line and sinker. Lisa looked smug, basking in Billy’s reflected glory. I thought of their yard, littered haphazardly with scrap iron, and wondered just what else went on in that house.
I can’t tell you the moment when I crossed the Great Divide from wide-eyed belief to wrinkling my nose at the whiff of a skeptical story, but it came.
Shopping Cart Un-Etiquette
It was the best of days, it was the worst of days.
I should have known better, but I thought I had a handle on my two-year-old daughter. Back then, Eva was known for commenting on anything or anyone that crossed her path with wickedly accurate one-liners that stung as only a two-year-old’s observations can. I had been the recipient of several of these barbs, and they left me speechless and out of sorts for an hour or so after. What had I given birth to? Would it ever stop? If I left her alone with my husband for more than a few hours, I’d return home to find him slightly goggle-eyed, like Wile E. Coyote the instant before one of his experimental mishaps went awry. I somehow couldn’t summon sympathy, though – I’d been there. Oh, yes, I knew what it felt like.
The day in question started out fine – Eva behaved as well as could be expected, so I felt confident taking her and her four-year-old brother grocery shopping with me. Both of them wanted to ride in one of those carts that has a wacky race car attached to the front. They’re cumbersome, and fully loaded, they’re almost impossible to corner, but hey – they keep the kids happy and at a level where the only thing they can haul off the shelf weighs more than they do.
So far, so good.
The problem arose at the checkout. Ahead of us was an elderly lady who was slowly removing a few items from a hand-held shopping basket. How I envied the ease with which she carried out this transaction! No one snatching at magazines! No requests for candy bars! Heck, she could just grab six of them off the shelf if she wanted to, tossing them on the conveyor belt with reckless abandon. Look at me! I can buy whatever I want!
My day would come. For the time being, I resigned myself to unloading the cart, answering the innumerable questions that came with it – When can we have that? How come she got to pick out something and I didn’t? When are we going home?
I put the last of my items on the conveyor belt, just as the cashier finished with the elderly lady’s order.
That’s when Eva struck.
I heard beep! Beep! Beep! from the shopping cart (yes, they have horns) and Eva leaned out her side of the cart and called in a loud voice:
“C’mon, granny, let’s get it rolling!”
If the shopping cart was a lumbering behemoth before this, I had instant visions of it roaring through the store, cutting a swath through unsuspecting shoppers as I hurtled toward the finish line, a distant speck somewhere in the parking lot.
But the lady behind me blocked any escape. I was stuck, as stuck as I’d ever been in a long time. Should I apologize? Pretend it didn’t happen? I froze, waiting.
If she had heard Eva’s order, the elderly lady did nothing. Calmly, she picked up her grocery bag and grabbed her handbag with the other hand. I vacillated between wondering if she was incredibly polite or extremely deaf. Either way, I heard the universe exhale, just a notch, and the cashier started running my groceries over the scanner.
Eva acted like nothing was wrong, and I vowed that next time, my husband could do the grocery shopping. I promised myself, I vowed, I’d sign an oath in blood that I wouldn’t care if he returned home laden with potato chips, frozen pizzas and a lifetime supply of root beer. We could pour the stuff on our cereal for all I cared, but next time, he was doing the shopping.
God Moments and Stagecoaches
This was one of those times my friend Jane calls “God Moments,” events that are connected spiritually. Sometimes that connection takes years to make, but in my case, the dots were connected in mere hours.
Wisconsin was celebrating its sesquicentennial, and a stagecoach run was planned through several lakeshore communities. Interestingly, we learned a few months earlier that the road bordering the east side of our property was once a stagecoach route, and that the celebratory stagecoach would retrace this old route, traveling right past our house.
But first things first. We had small children who needed to eat, so I added a trip to the grocery store on my to-do list. Pile a trip to Wal-Mart on top of that, and it suddenly became a morning that I wanted to avoid. My grandma lived in a nursing home, and it had been a bit too long since we visited, so I added her name to the list, too.
It was a Saturday, and the stores were packed. For a couple of hours, I fought the hustle and bustle, weaving my cart in and out of cartjams that clogged the stores, glad when I could step out into the fresh air.
Groceries packed in the trunk, I headed for home, then did a mental “head slap” as I realized I still needed to visit Grandma. She was a sweet, caring person, and a joy to hang out with, but at that moment, all I wanted to do was go home, unpack, and get ready for the stagecoach. My car rolled dispiritedly down Wal-Mart’s driveway, and I mentally flip-flopped. Visit Grandma…go home…visit Grandma…go home…
I drove toward the stoplight, getting this feeling, a heavy, in-your-bones kind of feeling that led me to flip my blinker and head for the nursing home. Once I made the turn, I felt a strange sense of relief, like a weight being lifted. It was puzzling.
The stagecoach route also snaked past the nursing home, so when I arrived, it was like a wheelchair parade – residents lined up along the half-circle drive, waiting in great anticipation for the event that was just minutes away. I found grandma in her room, and we chatted a bit before I offered to wheel her out to join the action. Outside, we talked to her friends, enjoying the spirit of fun as the stagecoach passed by, horses clopping, the driver calling out to the people lining the streets.
Grandma and I returned to her room, and I helped her back into her chair. We said our goodbyes, and she stopped me at the door with a curious thought:
“You’re an answer to my prayers.”
Well that one was an eyebrow-lifter. What on earth was she talking about? I hadn’t done anything special; in fact, right about then, I was mentally kicking myself for my earlier thoughts of wanting to postpone my visit.
“All morning long, I prayed that if God would want me to see the stagecoach, He’d send someone to help me,” she said.
Wow. Grandma’s been gone almost 13 years, but that moment has stayed with me, branded into my head for the big, God Moment lesson it was.
Shopping Cart Etiquette
I’ve read etiquette manuals, but never one that covers shopping cart etiquette. There should be one, though. When shopping carts leave the corral, it’s like they take on a life of their own – how long is one allowed to sit, alone and unattended, before someone else can claim it? Carts can look like they’ve been abandoned, but appearances are deceptive.
A while back, I was at our local Fleet Farm store. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a Fleet Farm, it’s basically a Guy Mall that smells like tires and sells junk food in bulk. It’s got a great selection of anything a guy could want – fishing lures, monster-sized jeans, overstock military supplies and fitting rooms that require the help of an attendant. Not that I’ve spotted any attendant squishing three college guys into one pair of those huge jeans; no, the attendant monitors the fitting rooms, counts your garments and flips a switch under the counter, opening the appropriate fitting room with an nasty buzzing sound. If you’re having an off day, this whole process can make you feel like you’ve done something wrong.
It’s also the only place where men grab a cart and start shopping. Think about that. When you shop, for the most part, aren’t females the ones pushing the carts? They plunk their purse in the section where toddlers normally sit, then head down the aisle with a list in their hand, heels clicking briskly as they set out to accomplish their shopping. At Fleet Farm, men are seen – solo and as part of a couple – pulling a cart from the corral and heading out.
That’s where I got myself in trouble. Normally, I don’t shop at Fleet Farm, so I must have been on an errand for my husband. I stood, list in hand, in the automotive section, carefully double-checking that the oil I picked matched the list. 5W-20? 10W-30? Synthetic? Synthetic blend? For me, it was akin to asking Hulk Hogan to pick out a pair of ballet shoes. Not that I’m large and hairy, but everything in the automotive section starts hazing into one amorphous product if I stay there too long.
My first mistake was not taking a cart. My arms bulged with a case of oil, on top of which I had stacked a radiator belt and a box of spark plugs. I forgot to mention that Fleet Farm is rather warehouse-y inside, and the checkouts are a mile away when your arms are full. I spotted an unattended, empty cart a few rows up – my eyes lit up, and my arms ached ever-so-slightly less in anticipation. Surely it was waiting for me!
I approached, carefully looking down each aisle to see if I could spot a potential owner. That’s another Fleet Farm peculiarity – the men push the carts, and as they wander away from their wives or girlfriends, these women are spotted walking down the main rows, heads swiveling back and forth, back and forth, looking down the side aisles as they try to find their missing men.
For once, I had no wandering husband to locate. I walked up to the cart, and with a sigh of relief, dropped my burden, the sound of rattling metal as the load settled a welcome one. As I grabbed the handle and headed for the checkout, I heard a voice behind me.
That was it – no accompanying laugh, no nothing. Talk about feeling like you’ve done something wrong!
The cart’s owner had materialized out of nowhere, just in time to see me lay claim to what he thought of as his cart. Red-faced and wordless, I wheeled the cart back to where I found it, heaved out my load and looked at my accuser.
He smiled. Maybe he meant it nicely, but I wasn’t feeling the love. Turning, I started my trek to the checkout.
Fleet Farm really needs to clear a spot in the bulk junk food aisle for an etiquette manual.
Rambo at the School Dinner
Our school holds a fundraising dinner every spring, a well-organized event that has hummed along, unchanged, for decades. Every now and then, someone from the new generation will attempt to modernize or somehow change the order of operations, but those efforts are thwarted by the organizing committee much like sea walls blocking the oncoming tide. Laminated Lists of recipes, menus and coffee maker procedures are held up, their glossy surfaces mocking anyone who even dared to dream that a change could be for the better.
Last year’s event hummed along like all the others – guests sat along either side of the dining tables, their places set by the kindergarten group under the mostly watchful eye of their teacher. Plates of ham left the kitchen, followed by bowls of steaming corn and mounds of mashed potatoes. Everyone had their assigned duty – greeter, ticket taker, ham slicer, apple pie disher-upper, and my favorite, the cart pushers. The kindergarten kids, who because of their age and unawareness, were given double duty in the form of manning this contraption. Four or five of them wobbled it down each aisle, one child slowly pouring juice that splatted on his shirt or shoes, while another carefully carried the cup to each recipient.
I watched this with amused detachment from the kitchen, where I was assigned plate scraping duty. It’s not for the faint of heart – gobs of ham and leftover potatoes get scraped unceremoniously into old coffee cans, taken home by one of the farmers who promptly tosses the mess into his pig pen.
“How do you stand that?” my mother asked, mouth puckering, one eyebrow arched over her glasses.
It wasn’t something I could get out of – the Laminated List had decided, months earlier, that this was my lot in life for the afternoon. I was sliding a leftover mess into a coffee can when Rambo appeared.
Decked out in a tennis-style headband, grey sweatsuit stretched tightly over his round belly, he was apparently expecting to dash madly from table to table, or possibly lead a post-dinner aerobics class. Bear in mind that normally, he’s attired in some form of polyester – jacket, pants, synthetic-fiber shirt – so these casual duds shocked. I suspected I might see thickly-knobbed knees and hairy legs if I leaned far enough over the counter.
“What should I do?” Rambo asked eagerly, looking to my mother for guidance, his eyes peering brightly from behind thick lenses.
Caught between a bray of laughter and total bewilderment, she stared mutely.
“Make something up,” I hissed.
Lame, but I was stumped. Without access to the Laminated List, I could only assume that Rambo knew his duties. I turned behind me for support, and met the eyes of a Ladies’ Service Club member, who stood, dish towel in one hand, dripping plate in the other, staring at the unfolding scene.
“Oh, for Gawd’s sake,” she said.
We froze, waiting for someone, anyone, to materialize with the Laminated List and save us from uncertainty. Seconds ticket by, and I realized it was now or never.
“Why don’t you just start clearing tables,” I plunged ahead lamely.
This got a snort from my mom and an eye roll from the Ladies’ Service Club grandma, but it did the trick – Rambo headed for the tables, where the kindergarten kids stopped wobbling the juice cart long enough to let him pass, flotsam in his wake.
In the kitchen, we exchanged wary glances, wondering who among us would be brave enough to approach the organizing committee with a change to next year’s Laminated List…