Falling Awake: Connection in my grocery bag

Mary Lou Sanelli

Mary Lou Sanelli

This is the first time in nearly a month that I’ve sat to write anything but a list. One in the kitchen that had to remember to find its way into my bag before I left the house, and one that was never allowed to leave my bag in the first place. I never keep lists on my phone. God forbid, I should lose my phone.

I don’t understand why lists comfort me the way they do psychologically. But if I should misplace one in December, my language can turn a little more Christina Applegate in “Dead to Me” than I like.

I began the month by telling myself that I was too busy to entertain, that it’s too time-consuming and expensive. But by Dec. 3, the scent of basil and garlic filled my home. I’m no great cook; it’s not Renee Erickson’s kitchen over here, believe me. People don’t come to my table to ooh and aah over the food. They ooh and aah over the fact that I have made the food. And so do I.

I think what happens is once the lights are strung, the golden hue that says, “It’s December, have some fun, your desk will still be there in January,” that the best part of the season really does come to light: laughing and eating with people I enjoy.

I started my shift-of-attitude by pre-washing the hand-painted plates from Italy that I found at an estate sale on a day when I was feeling unsettled and homesick because we’d moved to a new neighborhood. Oddly, standing in front of a departed woman’s dishes, I came to life. Those dishes put images in my head of a housewarming party happening clearly in my new home, of saying goodbye to wistfulness and hello to more friends and less lostness. I slid my arm around my husband’s back and said, “We are buying these dishes.” And he, being him, said, “We don’t need more dishes, do we?” and so I looked at him with my I mean it stare, and he bent over to pick up the box.

Needless to say, there were a lot of trips to the market in December.

On one, I stood in line behind a woman wearing six-inch heels. I can’t say that I’ve ever known what it’s like to be that elevated, but it stirred a strong memory: my mother in her black suede kitten heel slingbacks clicking up and down the aisles of the Stop & Shop, click, click, click, a look of mastery coming over her whenever she shopped for food. The sound slid over me like a silk dress in a place warm enough to wear it, reminding me our bodies are stewards of muscle memory. They hold their own stories.

On another, after leaving the store, I needed to repack the weight of my bag. Watching me from the next table was a family from India: a young man who spoke English with a Mumbaiker accent that was, to my ears, nothing short of melodious. His father also spoke English but not as well, and his mother and grandmother (each line etched deep) didn’t speak English at all. I gathered the three older adults were visiting their successful Amazon-employed son/grandson. The men talked about “the Dow being down three points,” or maybe they said 300. I have never understood a thing about what this means. But the women kept smiling and nodding at me.

A smile and a nod mean the same thing everywhere in the world.

No longer able to contain themselves, they rushed over to help me, or, not to help, really, but to inspect my food. Who was it that said they were old enough to be “In the years of unselfconsciousness?” Both wore colorful saris under their coats. So few women bother to wear anything but leggings nowadays, so the saris touched me, gave me a lift. As did the older woman who admired my heirloom tomato, reaching into my bag to pull out another. Openly, food is what the women knew, what they could relate to. Most people are usually too reserved or cellphone-distracted to give into childlike curiosity about the world around us. It’s moving when you get to see someone be so present and interested and human.

If there is one thing I know about, it’s the magnitude of culture. If the women are here to stay, it might take years for them to find even a shard of a real sense of belonging. For people relocating, it’s a grueling task of what to give up and what to keep.

But we always keep our food. Food is culture.

I have no proof of any of this of course, other than I know longing for connection when I see it. And I know two women in search of something they are not exactly sure of, I know this, too.

By appreciating my food, the women were looking for so much more, a feeling of belonging to a country and its people and the foods we eat. I wanted to talk to them, too, and I did, the son translating my questions (I was right about Mumbai/Amazon/their son/their visiting), but when he asked, “Do you have children?” and I said “no,” they all looked so sad for me.

They do, always.

And it’s hard to say, “no, wait, I chose my life” to people from such a customary background. So I excused myself, wished them well. I still had to walk home and make dinner. A friend was coming over.

She wore a gray sweater. And leggings.

Mary Lou Sanelli, author, speaker and master dance teacher, is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays that was nominated for a Pacific Northwest Book Award and a 2022 Washington State Book Award. Her first novel, The Star Struck Dance Studio of Yucca Springs, was released in 2020, and her first children's book, Bella Likes To Try, was recently released. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.