Trader Joe's

Growing Stronger

"Please don't load them too heavy," I said to the Trader Joe cashier as he unfolded and stretched out a few brown grocery bags. "I have to carry them into the house myself."

Kevin turned to me, first with a questioning look and then one of recognition. He had learned through the store's grapevine that my husband died in November.

"No problem," he said, then pulled out several more bags to spread my purchases among the collection building on the counter.

Like all of the other members of the TJ staff, Kevin had witnessed the ritual that Tommy and I performed every Sunday morning at 8 a.m. until my husband's hospitalization. It started like this: After we parked our car in the lot that was still not filled at that early hour, Tommy would head for the shopping cart corral and extract two. He'd hand me mine first, and then we'd meet up inside at the floral display,

"Your assignment if you wish to accept it," I'd joke, "is soy milk, bananas, strawberries, and orange juice."

With that directive, Tommy would push his cart towards the bakery goods.

Sticky pecan buns were not on the list of needs I had recorded on the reporter's notebook I keep on a kitchen counter. Neither was apple pie. But my husband regularly added one or the other pastry to his cart. These were his freebies and I think he enjoyed this bit of independence from his wife's rigid list.

Tommy would then depart, picking up the items I had requested. After a few minutes, he’d return to find me and get his next assignment.

"Good," I'd say as I scanned his cart and checked off milk, ban, straw, O.J. from my list. Then I’d instruct him, "pickles, marinated mushrooms, stuffed green olives, apple sauce."

Tommy and I would repeat this back-and-forth until we finished my list. With his mission completed, he’d head off, leaving me with his cart and bounty. Solo, I'd push mine and drag his behind me, like a mother with one cooperative and one unruly child.

I’d head to a checkout counter manned by a familiar face. If it was a regular like Kevin, I wouldn't have to give this spiel: "Consider these two carts as one. Pretend there is no bar between them. One order. One bill."

I'd feel it helpful to add a back story: "We used to shop with one cart," I'd say. "But, then I'd find myself with my arms overloaded as I'd catch up with my husband. This is easier."

"Got it," the neophyte would claim, but then total up the first cart, slap his forehead, and say, “Oh, sorry, force of habit." So you can see why Kevin and his like were so appreciated.

As purchases from the twin carts were being bagged, I'd start to seek a visual. Tommy had a habit, once he relinquished his cart, to wander the aisles. Another bit of independence, I'm sure.

If I was in a bratty mood, I'd wheel out the condensed and paid-for cart to the Honda -- my version of revenge for his disappearance. "Send him out when he shows up," I'd tell Kevin. "Will do," he'd say. I never knew if Kevin had picked up on Tommy's condition, or if he figured he was just another impatient spouse who had better things to do than wait for grocery bags to be filled.

I wouldn't pull that shtick very often as I didn't want to cause Tommy one bit of anxiety. As for him, he never seemed perturbed by my leave taking. He'd soon catch up with me at the opened trunk and watch a bit as I'd struggle with the first shopping bag. Then he'd grin and nudge me aside to complete the loading.

On the day I was doing my solitary shopping - not a Sunday because it was still too painful to visit the store on our day - Kevin hoisted one of the filled bags in the air, then handed it to me. "What do you think?" he asked.

I lifted it up, testing its weight to decide if I'd be able to first transfer from cart to trunk, then trunk up the back stairs to the kitchen,

"I think I can manage," I said.

At home, the extra bags and the absence of a muscled helper, required several trips from car to kitchen. "Cardio," I told myself. "Building biceps. Growing stronger."

Then, I imagined Tommy in his celestial abode, grinning. Not from my struggle, though, but from pride. "Knew you could do it," he’d say, as he raised his hands to give me two thumbs up.