A few years ago, I moved to Paris to write a book about life after my mom’s death. (And do other things, too—like live in freakin’ Paris.) The focus of the book changed a few times: from grief to creating home in a foreign country where you don’t know a soul to navigating life as a grown-ass woman when you’re completely alone.
So I tried to make it funny — because grief, isolation, and loneliness are hilarious, right? Not surprisingly, 70,000 “hilarious” and meandering words in, I got stuck. And I got sad every time I worked on it so I stopped.
But some of it may actually be kind of funny — not shoot-liquid-out-your-nose, laugh-out-loud funny, but holy-shit-there’s-no-way-that-actually-happened funny. Heartbreak with a wink, as they say in advertising.
So here’s an early draft of a chapter that attempts to incorporate some of that. Apologies in advance if you’re a Walmart fan, because you may never shop there again. (But come on, you can do better than Walmart . Why not give Amazon Prime a try?)
Mostly I’m sharing it because telling stories and sharing memories are how we keep the people we love who are gone alive. So, enjoy it world. My mom was amazing.
“Welcome to Walmart!”
A friendly elderly woman wearing the familiar blue greeter vest with the low-price smiley face beams brightly at me as she holds out a sheet of coupons for me to take. On her vest are four or five buttons featuring a soldier in uniform—probably her grandson, possibly someone who died, I think.
“Maybe we should get buttons, too,” I suggest to David and Steve, my two brothers.
No one says anything. We just keep walking, the three of us in lockstep as we make our way to the Electronics Department.
Today is the day after my mother’s funeral. Today my brothers and I are going to start assimilating back into life as we know it.
Whatever that means.
Step one of Project Assimilation is to make copies of the huge stack of family photos from her house that the three of us now have to divvy up. In Lexington, Kentucky, Walmart is the cheapest and fastest place to do this.
Walmart had been the subject of a friendly but spirited discussion between Mom and me for the past five or six years. She liked getting her toothpaste for two dollars cheaper than at Kroger; I told her that her toothpaste came with a price: the downfall of America. She liked shopping at the Walmart grocery because it was easier; I told her that she might as well chop 10 or 11 years off her life if she insisted on eating their jacked-up, non-organic, injected-with-god-knows-what-kind-of-hormones meat.
Her arguments were rational and sane; mine were dramatic, fear-based, and selfish. The fact that my mom now shopped almost exclusively at Walmart for everything from clothes to food to beauty supplies seemed to magnify the fact that her death was imminent.
I tried to change her mind about Walmart by appealing to her love of fashion. I told her that clothing from, say, Target, was higher quality, better made, and just as affordable. I gently encouraged her to consider Merona brand, silently willing her shopping choices to somehow prolong her time on earth. She retorted that Walmart employees were nicer to people in wheelchairs and helped customers do things like carry her heavy box of cat litter to her car as she wheeled along beside them.
I never mentioned Target again.
Today, Walmart reminds me of her. I wish for her to be beside me in her wheelchair cart. I wish that I hadn’t acted like such an asshole by sharing my petty, hurtful opinions with her. I wish for one more chance to shop with her for mundane things like toothpaste and contact solution.
But all I have left of her is this stack of pictures waiting to be copied, so I keep walking with my brothers toward the Electronics Department, concentrating very hard on the difficult task of putting one foot in front of the other.
For the past six days, my brothers and I have been operating as one unit, three humans that have somehow melded into one. They are the only nuclear family I have left, and I feel shaky and distraught when they’re out of my sight. The brotherly tension between them seems to have taken a temporary hiatus for the past six days and we’ve completed all tasks together, in harmony, no matter how difficult or simple. Divvying up flower arrangements and thank-you note duties, calling friends to tell them the news, taking walks in the frigid January air, going to Starbucks to get coffee, waking up in the middle of the night to look at pictures and listen to music because we can’t sleep: all together. There is no space between us right now, and I like that.
And that’s why we’re literally standing side by side like a human wall in front of the machine that makes color copies of photos, not talking as we concentrate hard on reading the directions, pressing buttons, and retrieving the smiling images of our mom’s life. Just two weeks ago, when we were all together at Christmas, this scenario probably would’ve resulted in the usual sibling shenanigans: at least one smartass remark, one are-you-fucking-kidding-me eye roll, and a few snarky words. But two weeks ago my mom was alive, so we wouldn’t have even been here doing this. Six days ago she was living her last day. Now, she’s gone forever and we walk to the cash register in solidarity, mere centimeters between each of us.
We hand over the stack of copies to the cashier, another elderly woman who appears to be in her mid-seventies and looks decidedly less friendly than the greeter we met at the front of the store. Her skin is waxy and the corners of her mouth are turned downward into a frown, and her short, gray hair is sprayed stiffly into an old-school, beauty parlor style.
Her wrinkled hands sift surprisingly quickly through the hundreds of copies we’ve made, then suddenly stop at one of my favorite pictures of my mother: an eight by ten, black and white photo from when she graduated high school. The picture is just from her neck up, and she’s smiling shyly above her signature, which reads: “Love, Wanda, 1953.” She’s so beautiful and young, her whole life in front of her.
I think that our cashier has stopped ringing up photos to perhaps remark on the photo, to comment on how beautiful the young woman in the picture is. But instead she surprises us all: “Do you have permission to copy this picture?”
The question confuses us. “We don’t need permission,” I tell her. It’s our mother’s photo.”
“It looks like it was taken at a studio, which means you’ll need to get permission from either the studio or the photographer who took it. I can’t let you have it.”
And just like that, she moves our mother’s smiling face away from us, taking both our copies and the original photo out of reach. I start to cry.
David stares at her in disbelief, “What are you talking about? You can’t do that!”
“I most certainly can and I am,” she says haughtily. “You have no right to copy this photo.”
Steve tries reasoning with her, the good cop to David’s bad. “Look, the woman in this picture is our mom. She just died and we’re making copies of all these photos so we can each have them to remember her.”
The woman is like granite, completely unmoved. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you have it.”
Red-faced, snot running freely from my nose, I yell at Granite. “What is WRONG with you? This is our MOTHER. Her funeral was yesterday—we just buried her and we’re never going to see her again. These pictures are all we have!”
A woman behind us in line pops her head around the crowd and joins in the conversation. “I think you’re being very unreasonable,” she chides at Granite disapprovingly, giving her a hard stare. “Look at them—they just lost their mother. They’re in shock. Surely it’s not a problem to just give them the picture.” Another woman in line behind her nods in approval.
Riding the wave of crowd support, David tries again. “Ma’am, our mother graduated high school in 1953. We just buried her yesterday. The photographer who took this was probably older than her, so my guess is that he’s dead too. If it was taken at a studio, we don’t know which one it was and it’s probably out of business anyway. Please. Can’t you let us have the picture?”
“I understand that you’re upset,” Granite says, “But I’m sorry, no, I can’t let you have it. You need to get permission first.”
The line behind us releases a collective groan of disapproval and Steve asks to speak to a manager.
We wait by a stock room door, its gray paint chipped. America’s “Horse with No Name” plays distantly in the background. We’re huddled together in our human wall, me still crying, Steve’s girlfriend, Terry, gently trying to calm all of us. In a show of solidarity, our friends from the cash register line stand with us. And also probably because this is the most exciting that’s happened in the Electronics Department of the Nicholasville Road Walmart for a long, long time.
Roughly ten minutes later, a man of average height walks through the gray doors and immediately makes eye contact with all six feet, six inches of Steve, who points him toward a corner and simply says, “We need to talk.”
Ten seconds later, the manager comes out of the corner and advises Granite to sell us the photo.
“I was just doing my job,” she says defensively as she rings us up.
“Well, I don’t think you’re doing a very good job,” I tell her poutily. It feels mean to say it out loud—after all, our mother raised me to be more polite than that—but I reason that it’s better than saying the things I’m unleashing on her in my head, which are: FUCK YOU. You are unfuckingbelievable, you old bag. I hope when you die your kids don’t have to deal with petty shit like this the day after they bury you. And from the looks of you, that could be any day, so maybe you better start being nicer to people, Granite.
It’s the first of a billion times to come that I’ll wish my mom were here so I could tell her something.
This would NEVER have happened at Target, Mom.
Look at me, using this picture on my blog! Suck it, Walmart.