Monday, March 15, 2010


My Dad liked to go grocery shopping with me.

He moved in with Joe, me and the kids after my mother died and he became part of our life. Dad lived in a downstairs apartment and kept his own kitchen, but we'd spend hours together. Our children, Joe and Melynda, loved eating two dinners and cuddling after school on his big belly in front of an old movie.

But Dad had a thing for food and for shopping. He loved Packard's Farmer's Market, where you could shop for fresh fruit and vegetables and always get a good bag of Idaho potatoes for a buck.

Bargains, the unruly ethnic mix, the prices, the beauty of the vegetables. Dad couldn't get enough of Packards.

"Can you believe how beautiful the string beans are? Can you imagine how delicious they will be? It's amazing!" He was a stroke victim, so his periferal vision was bad. He would meander through the market crowds, searching for dewey bunches of lettuce, carrots with leafy tops and his bargain potatoes.

Spring is a busy time for me so I decided on a new plan. Instead of bringing Dad with me to shop, I would just buy his usual order in no time flat. This way, I could fit more into my day and maybe have a little time for myself.

I started to do this without Dad's approval. For a few weeks, I would drive by the market on the way home from work, run around the aisles to gather his favorite fruits and vegetables, gather up the bags and then go home to spill the groceries unceremoniously on to his mahogany table. I didn't dare meet his eyes.

"Look Dad, I got your stuff. What a bargain!" He stared at me, gave me a weak smile and dutifully put the groceries I'd purchased away, one by one.

A few days after one of these grocery dumps, Dad padded up the stairs to my kitchen while I was stirring spaghetti sauce and helping little Joe with spelling words.


"Yes, Dad?"

.....He seemed to hesitate, but eventually said: "I really would like to do my own shopping! I want to do it with you! I like finding my own fruit and vegetables...." I fumbled with the pot, licking some sauce off my finger, feeling a knot in my stomach.

"Dad, you know," I said, "I'm very busy. Sometimes it's easier - you know - to just run in." I stirred the pot a minute. "You know, Dad, you take a long time and I have a lot to do." The words just tumbled out of my mouth and once said, they burned my lips. I saw Dad's eyes lower and his voice get husky.

"But, I like to shop with you," he said, "be with you, Maryann, look at the vegetables." Dad's eyes seemed to water.

"Oh me too, Dad!" I said . "I really love to shop with you. So, Do you want to go tomorrow? You know me, I'm just a busy mom. I'm sure you were like me when you were raising us. How about tomorrow morning? It's Saturday and I have time to spend."

Dad looked me deep in the eyes, "What time, honey?"

I looked up from the spaghetti pot. "Oh, let's say ten? Sound good?"

Dad nodded, pressed his lips together and slowly walked back down the stairs to his apartment, holding onto the bannister to steady his walk. I looked out the window to see the sun slipping down into the horizon.

The next morning I sprang out of bed to go to the gym.The day was bright and the sky a vivid blue. I could go to the gym to work out a bit before coming home and doing some lesson plans, maybe help Melynda with her Social Studies project or even check out the movies so my husband and I could catch a good one tonight. The gym would be a nice break for me to start the day. I could just slip out. I loved the fluffy towels they give you and the smell of almond hand lotion. But like a stab, I remembered my promise to Dad. With any luck, he wouldn't remember.

Guilt tugged at me so I ran down to my Dad's apartment to make sure.

"Did you still want to shop Dad?"

"I'm all ready, sweetheart." Dad peeked his head out from his bedroom, his blue eyes sparkling, and I could see that he was fully dressed, wearing a coat and his Irish tweed hat. "Can't wait," he said, with a smile that lit up his face.

I gulped, threw on my jeans and jacket and ran a comb through my hair. We got in the car and headed off towards Hackensack, NJ to the farmer's market. The closer we got, the more chipper Dad became. Why was he so excited about going shopping? I ran through the list of all of the other things that I could be doing instead of spending two hours on something I could do alone in five minutes.

We got out of the car and flung open the doors to the market, a giant reconverted department store used to house stalls of vegetables, fruits, meats and fish. Dad headed off, with a trot, to the Romaine, the parsley, the plums, the boxes of strawberries, the bunches of bananas. The sounds of Spanish, Chinese, Hindi and English filled the air as people in turbans and shawls poked vegetables and smelled oranges.

I felt a little dizzy and noticed that something was happening. My "to do" list was slipping away as I watched Dad moving down the aisles with confidence and interest. He had owned his own restaurant for thirty years so he knew this world. It's his world and suddenly, the door has opened to let me in and I am remembering who he is to me. He is my Dad and I am following him, letting him teach me like I used to. I'm listening.

I smell the lingering earth still hanging on the roots of the vegetables. I let myself be pushed back and forth by people. The lemon scent reaches me, the fullness of the peaches. I touch the parsley and it tickles.

Dad sees me smiling and he flashes me a grin. We are together.

I am five years old and I am happy to be with him. He is the world and this is our playground. I run to him.

"Dad, Did you SEE the carrots? Aren't they beautiful?"

He dashes over to me with a gorgeous melon. "This is perfect," Dad says.

He's right, it is. It's perfect. The rough exterior and the soft pulpy fruit waiting as a surprise in the middle.

The next morning, my Dad died.

Before I'd left the house that morning, I'd shouted down to him.

"Dad, did you see the DAY outside? It's great. Get out and have a walk!"

He took my advice and walked to church and died on Palm Sunday, as the hymns surrounded him and the green palm leaves felt fresh in his pocket. He closed his eyes and went to sleep. The woman next to him tapped his shoulder when he didn't rise. Sweetly and gently, he passed. Amen. Rest in peace.

Now, I know about vegetables. Taste their flavor. Smell the plums. Listen like a gift to the sounds of many lands. Get joy out of the symetry of a head of cabbage, the blush of an apple. Be where you are.

Henry J. Woods b. 2/23/1912- d. 4/5/1998

"Vegetables" was written in 2000 and revised for this blog. I think about my Dad all the time, but especially around St. Patrick's Day, a holiday he loved. Though my children are grown, the message of that day we shared in the market is one I need to remember every day. A parent's advice is like a time capsule that activates when life gives you challenges or experiences and then suddenly, you remember words said long ago or experiences that changed your life.

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