By Ken Bradbury
She wouldn’t have made five feet tall even forty years ago when her frame was a bit straighter, and as she stood in front of the checker at County Market, I marveled at the fact that she was still out doing her own shopping. “I’m 94, you know!” she shouted to the lady behind the cash register. “I know you are, darling. You always remind me!” There was a good deal of shouting since the little lady’s hearing had gone south several years ago.
County Market is famous for not allowing you to wait in the checkout lane for any length of time with always a good number of lanes open, but there’s an unwritten rule in stores like this that says if there are 200 shoppers in the store at any one time, at least 180 of them will decided to check out when you do. Such was the case that bright spring morning when the sweet little gal decided to camp out in the line ahead of me. Four of us awaited checkout that morning: the little lady, a boy buying only a bottle of Dr. Pepper, me with a very hot baked chicken in my hands, and a lady behind with two little ones and an overloaded grocery chart. Three of us waited while (and I’ll call her Mrs. Giggle) pawed through her change purse. Her order had come to $20.17, but she knew she couldn’t remember that number until she got home to stub her check, so she’d written a check for twenty then began digging. “I always keep change for things like this.” The checker smiled patiently and the line behind us grew even longer.
“You know I shop here all the time,” she said to the boy whose Dr. Pepper was beginning to get warm. “Of course I was shopping here when it was the IGA across the street.” The boy smiled, wondering no doubt how a warm cola would taste on this sunny morning and while my roast chicken was beginning to drip down my arm. That’s when Mrs. Giggle giggled and turned to us and announced, “You’ll have to excuse me! I’m old!” This brought a wave of laughter that rippled down the row of cash registers. “Used to be everyone paid cash and it took even longer!” she said as she dug deeper into the recesses of her purse. The Dr. Pepper boy and I both began digging into our own pockets in hope of finding enough loose change to get us out of there before the store closed for Christmas.
At the bagging end of the conveyer belt stood a fellow who might have been her son or perhaps a helpful neighbor. His face turned a couple of shades of red as he became aware that his passenger was holding up an entire line of shoppers. “Need some help?” he asked her. “Yeah,” she said, “about forty years ago but it’s too late now!” and she giggled. And the checker giggled. And the Dr. Pepper boy giggled. And we all giggled.
“You know, I’m 94! It takes longer when you’re 94!” I’m sure that to make the County Market books come out evenly at the end of the day they don’t have the discretion allowed the one-man groceries stores of old and weren’t able to say, “Oh, that’s close enough. Just go on, Ma’am.” That’s when Mrs. Giggle bumped her purse and the contents spilled out onto the convey belt. “Well I’ll be switched!” she shouted. “If that ain’t a mess!” I stood there trying to think of the last time I’d heard someone exclaim, “I’ll be switched.” I think it was my grandmother in 1957. As her driver and the checker lady began to gather up Mrs. Giggle’s things, she turned to us and exclaimed, “You know, you get to be 94 and you drop things!” The only thing I dropped was my impatience, as by now the entire front of the store was laughing. After a few more minutes of fumbling and packing, Mrs. Giggle reached up to grab the handles of her shopping cart, leaned heavily upon the handle and headed for the exit. It didn’t seem quite right to applaud, but I know that we all felt like doing so.
I got in my car and turned on the radio to hear the news of the national presidential campaign, our state’s budgetary wrangling and the rabid lives of dead rock stars, and thought to myself “… no, that is not America.” I’d just witnessed what’s best and truest about our nation while I was standing in line with a roasted chicken, a warm Dr. Pepper and about twenty grocery shoppers. Mrs. Giggle knew how to live, we knew how to be considerate, and no one got angry. People caring about people … yeah, that’s the real America. Those are the real Americans.