By Allyn Schuyler
When I was a young girl, my family owned a grocery store. Not the enormous box stores we know today, just a modest independent market in our small central Texas hometown.
There was a time when our store was the biggest and best for miles around. It was a long, low pink brick building with large plate glass windows all across the front. Once, a car jumped the curb and smashed through those windows when the elderly driver thought her car was in reverse. The flat roof of our building, however, proved to be its most vulnerable spot when burglars cut through the tile and tar paper more than once in our history of ownership — for cigarettes to resell on the black market for a few bucks.
The store had two glass doors, one automatically opening in and one swinging out, and was probably the only such door in town at the time. We had three small “checkout stands, each with a colorful candy display to tempt the children at the end of their shopping experience. My first job was to dust off the boxes of gum balls and taffy with a feather duster — I never minded that task as I day dreamed about which treat I might ask my father for later.
Our small office greeted customers as they walked in the front door, glass partitions eye-level and secured only by a half door that was sometimes locked, sometimes not. There was little sense of privacy because everyone could see in and we could see everywhere in the store from that tiny space. Times were different then, but still my mother lost her wedding ring when she left it unattended on the desk. She maintained that she accidentally threw it away, not wanting to believe anyone she knew would actually steal it.
From her desk in the middle of the organized chaos of clutter — stacks of ads here, a wheel of rubber stamps there, my mother cut and pasted hand-lettered advertisements for the weekly paper. And how I loved to take electric bill payments through the little window in the glass. I felt very grown up and responsible and it was there that I learned to count money and avoid the common $20 bill short-change scam, or “con” as they called it in that day.
Our store had six long aisles, and in my mind’s eye, I can still see the neatly stacked dry and canned goods. My father taught me to pull the sundries forward, rotating the oldest expiration dates to the front. He took pride in every inch of our store and he cared for it like it was a shiny red sports car. We were constantly wiping and dusting, sweeping or mopping.
Even in his later years, Daddy moved around the store quick as a whip. His fingers flew over the old-style, hard-to-punch cash register keys and he sacked up groceries quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen since. He cared about his customers and didn’t want to waste their time.
Dad was also the store’s butcher and wielded knives like a samurai. He cut up a chicken and wrapped it in freezer paper in one fell swoop. The little ladies of our town loved to special order their meat and Dad graciously obliged. One woman ordered her hamburger meat one-quarter pound at a time and another liked her pork chops butterflied “just so.”
As his oldest child, my responsibility grew with age. One day, I was proudly issued a box cutter and I pounded the price on each can or box inside with my clunky ink marker that I had to manually adjust as I turned the rubber numbers, digit by digit. I went home many days with purple fingers from the ink.
But long before I was old enough to actually work in the store, I remember running in with my mother and little sisters — ponytails, peddle-pushers and patent-leather shoes flying around with abandon like we owned the place — which, of course, we did. Through the swinging doors at the back of the store lay a kid’s dream playground — the cool, dark expanse of warehouse. Rows and rows of stacked cardboard boxes to be crawled over and jumped on, hidden in and run around. They provided hours of extended play as we imagined boats and houses and dance stages. My dad sat me on one of those boxes the day he asked me what I wanted for my sixth birthday and I said, to his surprised dismay, “a pony.”
Deep in the recesses of the warehouse loomed the only thing that we didn’t like about our store — a walk-in freezer with a frighteningly thick steel door that exhaled spooky cold mist when it opened. Daddy made sure we knew about the latch inside the door. The thought of being shut up in that frozen locker with skinless halves of calves hanging on hooks still sends a shiver up my spine.
I liked owning and operating our store and I can picture every little detail so clearly even though a lifetime has passed now.
I recall what we stocked on every aisle and how we had to send a customer’s kid to the doctor when he stuck a brightly-colored toilet cleaning bar that looked like candy in his mouth.
I can still see the humongous rubber plant that grew to be so old and big that it became a tree.
And I fondly remember how we could see our lighted sign with the cornucopia horn from several blocks away.
I picture all of this so clearly, yet what I describe is no longer there. The store is a church now, with so many changes to its exterior it’s almost unrecognizable as our old food market. I don’t much like to drive by these days because it’s such a shock to look over and see our store gone — what’s in my mind just doesn’t jive with what my eyes take in.
Isn’t it funny how the mind works like that — how we can envision in such detail what’s no longer there.
Like how my sweet grandmother will always be 50-ish in my mind even though she lived to be 93 years old. How I still think of myself as a slender young woman when, in reality, I’m middle-aged and overweight. In my mind’s eye, our old grocery store is still alive and thriving and the Pentecostal Church of God is still meeting in someone’s home.
Many years have passed since I left my hometown and that life. Since then, I’ve been all over the country and traveled overseas. I can’t remember my trip to Europe as well as I can picture that little grocery store. Isn’t it funny — and wonderful — how the mind allows us to hold onto those memories most dear. Yes, time passes, everything changes, we can’t turn back the clock. Thank goodness my sweet husband, in his mind’s eye, still sees me as his sexy young bride.