Grocery shopping as a rite of passage

Brookline TAB, April 14, 2011

Oh, Stop & Shop.

I have come to you for food for 23 years. I have complained once in a while about a bruised apple, long lines and your lack of my favorite protein bars. But I have loved you for your workers with disabilities: the guy who chats about the Red Sox and food; the young man I recognize from one of Nat’s social groups; the man who covers his ears while he packs. The summer job kids from Brookline High School.

My family can walk to Stop & Shop. We did that many times with our boys when they were younger. Stop & Shop back then was a dreaded destination.

The worst time was when Nat, my severely autistic son, had some kind of terrible outburst outside, when we were done. Back then, he had few communication skills and so did we, so we did not always understand what was wrong for him. My blood pressure shot way up, as always, and I switched into “Please-God-make-it-stop” mode, along with my husband, Ned, who had the bulk of the physical struggle. I remember watching Ned wrestle 8-year-old Nat to the curb. I remember wondering if violence was now going to be a part of our lives. I remember talking to my therapist afterwards, to see if she thought we had handled it all right. I felt like I was in trouble, that some agency was going to rule us unfit parents and take Natty away. As difficult as things have been, I always, always wanted to hang onto him. He is my responsibility, and that is that.

Recently, I took 21-year-old Nat to the Stop & Shop. The only feelings I had were the dread of crowds and anticipating the boredom of food shopping. But Nat was clearly into the outing. And I was feeling strong. When I’m strong, I remember to let him do things. I take more risks.

He tried to get the cart out, but they were all stuck together. He tried to pull it twice, both times taking another cart with it. He let it go and looked at me. “Here’s what you do, Nat,” I said. “You push this one and pull on this one.” Not sure if he listened, but he did take the cart from me and push it through the doors.

We wended our way through Boca burgers, mayo, and lo-and-behold: my favorite protein bars. We got the rest of our stuff, Nat pushing the cart and, once in a while, successfully grabbing an item for me.

Then we finished up. I only had a few things, so I thought I’d do self-check-out. I started scanning, and then I remembered that Nat has been training at a mock shelving room in his school, to scan bar codes and shelve items. I wondered… “Nat, why don’t you help me scan these? You know about bar codes. You look for this.” I showed him the black lines. He started picking up boxes, but moving them haphazardly across the eye.

A little more guidance. O.K. “Here,” I said, orienting the box correctly. I handed boxes to him in the right orientation, and then I saw that he was getting it. He was holding them correctly and placing them in just the right place for the beep, then putting them on the conveyor belt. This was generalization of a skill, right before my eyes.

When it was done, I felt so good, I thought I’d try even more: “Nat, will you bag?” I didn’t wait for his answer because I had to press the buttons to pay. But when I looked up, he was holding a bag and putting stuff into it. And he’d already finished one bag, and it was in the cart.

My blood pressure was up, just like in the old days. But it was joy, pressing my heart and pumping into my ears. I was running quickly after him as he pushed the full cart out the door. He stopped at the curb to let a car go by. He had looked out for cars! Another blessing. He loaded the stuff into the trunk. He got into the back seat, because that is where he likes to ride. He carried all but one bag into the house.

A trip to the Stop & Shop on a Saturday has made my day. How many people can say that?