Chapter Three: Supermarket Spree
Our new home at 801 Washington looked un-furnished even after we moved in. We had no money to buy appliances, let alone furniture. But in the months after winning the Western Auto contest, Mom entered a slew of other contests and won enough things to make the house seem functional: an automatic coffeemaker, a Deepfreeze home freezer, a Westinghouse refrigerator, a Motorola radio, two wall clocks, three wool blankets, a box of household tools, a set of kitchen appliances, and three pairs of Arthur Murray shoes.
Many of these prizes were not what Mom had been aiming for. The wall clocks, for example, were seventh prizes in a contest whose first prize was a station wagon. She was always trying to replace the dilapidated family Chevy with something a bit more dependable. Just to start the car most mornings required a ten-person push so Dad could pop the clutch and rumble off to work in a cloud of blue smoke. Even so, the two wall clocks didn't go to waste. Mom gave one to our aunt Lucy and hung the other in the dining room, where it covered a baseball-sized dent of missing plaster that no one would ever own up to.
The Westinghouse refrigerator, though, was a first prize in an aluminum foil contest, for which Mom submitted this 25-words-or-less entry on why she liked using Alcoa Wrap:
I like strong Alcoa Wrap because Alcoa resists "all thumbs" handling -- stays whole to keep juices and flavors IN, ashes OUT, of cookout meals; deserves merit badge for simplifying Scout cookery.
The Deepfreeze home freezer, also a first prize, was gigantic -- four feet high, five feet wide, and three feet deep -- so big it would have been more appropriate in a restaurant or an army mess hall. It looked very empty with just a single gallon of ice cream sitting in the bottom of it. Most of us couldn't even reach the container without falling in. But my mother was ingenious. If we needed clothes, she made them. If we needed a freezer, she won one. If we needed food to fill the new freezer, she was going to win that too.
In a Seabrook Farms contest, Mom was awarded a shopping spree at the local Big Chief Supermarket. She submitted her 25-word entry in poem form:
Wide selections, priced to please her;
Scads of Seabrook's in their freezer,
Warmth that scorns the impersonal trend,
Stamps "Big Chief" as the housewife's friend.
A shopping spree in a supermarket was not what anyone else would have considered a major win, but to Mom it was the answer to our prayers. Our aunt Lucy, a bank teller who lived down the road in Bryan, bought a lot of our weekly groceries, but a freezer filled to capacity would relieve Mom's worries about food for months.
Weeks before the scheduled shopping spree, Mom gathered the family around the dining room table to help plan her assault. Dad had fled the scene, increasingly sullen since "Moneybags," his sarcastic nickname for Dick, had won the Western Auto contest.
"Okay," Mom said, "there are some ironclad rules. First, I've got only ten minutes to grab everything I can."
"That's not very long," I said.
"Just stay in the candy aisle," offered Mike.
"Second," she said, "everything has to fit in one shopping cart."
"One?" Betsy said. "I thought each of us would get a cart."
"Third, everything has to be edible."
"Bruce will eat anything," said Rog.
"Open your mouth, Rog," Bruce said, clenching his fist. "I've got your lunch right here."
As they lunged across the table at each other, Mom yelled, "Knock it off, you two! I'm not finished." They sat back down, trading menacing stares as Mom continued.
"Fourth," she said, "only one of everything. I can get different sizes of the same brand, or same sizes of different brands, but only one of each brand and size."
"The list would have been shorter," said Dick, "if they'd listed the things you can have."
"It's still okay," Bub said. "Everything comes in lots of brands and sizes."
"Besides," said Lea Anne, who was home from nursing school for the weekend, "none of the meat packages will weigh exactly the same, so you can at least start there."
"One last thing," Mom said. "I have to fill the cart by myself. No one can help me."
"We don't get to go along?" moaned Barb, expressing the sagging disappointment we all felt. I wasn't the only one with visions of being let loose for a few minutes in aisles filled with potato chips, jelly beans, cupcakes, and ice cream.
"You can come," said Mom, "but you'll have to stay back with the store clerks and the Seabrook representative. What you can help me with is planning how to do it."
We decided that the first step would be mapping out the store, aisle by aisle, so Mom could memorize every inch of the place. The Big Chief Supermarket was huge, about half a football field long. Dad had to join in this time -- he was the only one in the family who could drive -- taking several of us along to scout it out.
Anybody else in Mom's position might have gone after the usual milk and bread and bologna and ketchup. Not Mom. "Think big," she said. "If I'm going to get a cartload of free food, I'm not going to waste cart space or time going after on-sale chicken parts and fish sticks." (We ate fish sticks almost every Friday night for supper.) "We can ignore the five-pound bags of sugar and gallons of milk, too."
"The Mars bars are on aisle five," said Mike.
"I want you kids to taste chateaubriand, New York steak, lobster, and anything else you've never tried before. Heck, I want to try them too.
"I'll have to grab a token amount of Seabrook's frozen food first," Mom added, ever aware of pleasing the contest sponsors. "But after that I'm heading for the meat department."
The only problem was the shopping cart itself. It looked no bigger than the inside of a large suitcase. Even the bottom rack seemed paltry, barely big enough for a ten-pound sack of potatoes. While we stood over the meat cases at the back of the store, the butcher, Bob Wallen, came out to say hello. Everyone in Defiance, including Bob, had already heard about Mom's upcoming shopping spree.
"If there's any special cut of meat you're interested in, Evelyn," he said, "tell me now, and I'll have it ready ahead of time."
"I'm half afraid I won't have room for everything I want," she said. "The cart is so shallow."
Bob's blue eyes lit up. He came out from around the counter and measured the sides with his knife-scarred hands. "Hey, we can fix that," he said. "I can cut some flat slabs of beef and extra-long sides of bacon. See, you can stand them on end all around the inside edge and make the sides taller."
Now Mom's eyes lit up. "That would double the cart's capacity," she said. "Bob, you're going straight to heaven!"
"This is no ordinary shopping spree, Evelyn," Bob said, a huge grin on his round face. "This is a treasure hunt! You won't have to come back to my counter for a long, long time."
When the day of the shopping spree finally arrived, we were ready. Mom knew exactly what she wanted and where it was in the store. Even so, she was slightly nervous. In the car on the way there, she said, "I wish I had twenty minutes instead of ten. I wish all of you could help me. I wish I had won a station wagon instead of a shopping spree." Then she laughed and said, "Who am I kidding? This is going to be fun."
The shopping spree was scheduled to take place before the store opened for business. Mom had the option of doing it after business hours, but by that time of night Dad would have been too drunk to drive her to the store and too argumentative to be out in public. As our old Chevy pulled into the nearly empty lot on the appointed morning, we could see the store manager, Harvey Ward, the Seabrook executive, who I will call Miles Streeter, and a few clerks waiting just inside the glass door for Mom's arrival. She stepped out of the front passenger seat and into the store, and everybody applauded. Mr. Streeter watched the stream of kids pouring out of the car like clowns out of a Volkswagen.
"How did you all fit in there?" he asked as we trailed into the store after Mom.
"With a shoehorn," Mom laughed, as she pulled a shopping cart from the rack. "They won't get in the way. They're just going to yell out the time every few minutes so I can keep on schedule."
And then an act of kindness occurred, altering the outcome of the day for the Ryan family. Mr. Streeter looked at us and looked again at the rule sheet. He placed his thumb over the line specifying that the shopper couldn't have help. He turned to two of the store clerks, Pauline and Hazel, who had come in early to watch Mom's ten minutes of fame. Both in their sixties, the two women were rooting for her as much as any of us kids were. They also had a better understanding of the store's layout than Mom did, Mr. Streeter knew, and they wore industrial-strength shoes that had run up and down these aisles many times before. "I'm going to turn my back," he told them. "Any help you give Mrs. Ryan in filling the cart won't be seen by me." Everyone's eyes lit up.
Mom tested the cart by rolling it back and forth a few times, making sure she didn't have to fumble around the store on defective wheels. Harvey adjusted his bow tie and held up a stopwatch. Mom's hands gripped the cart handle. She bent forward slightly, standing like an Olympic sprinter waiting for the starting gun.
"Go!" yelled Harvey as he clicked the watch on.
Down the aisle they all flew, Hazel and Pauline following Mom in a trot toward the meat department, where Bob pointed out the prepackaged sheets of beef ribs and bacon -- even extra-long rolls of salami -- to use in supporting the sides. Pauline and Hazel held the slabs of meat up in the cart and Mom filled in the center, hauling huge beef and pork roasts, platter-sized steaks, and six-packs of filet mignon out of the case and tossing them into the cart.
"Seven minutes to go!" called Rog from the front of the store.
"I think we should split up," said Mom, her voice a few octaves higher than usual. "I'll take the frozen food aisle. You two hit the European food section."
"What do you want?" Hazel asked, already running toward aisle eight on the heels of Pauline.
"Exotic things!" Mom said. "Expensive things! The good stuff! But only one of each!"
At the front of the store, Bub lifted Betsy up onto his shoulders. "Six minutes, Mommy!" she shouted.
Mom shot through the frozen food aisle like a missile, grabbing game hens and emptying the seafood section of lobster thermidor, crab claws, filet of sole, salmon steaks, halibut, everything but fish sticks. "Absolutely no fish sticks!" yelled Mom, as Pauline and Hazel careened around the corner, arms filled with cans of pâté, mushrooms, caviar, artichoke hearts, blanched asparagus, hollandaise sauce, and who knows what else.
"Three minutes!" shouted Bruce.
Mom wrestled with several quarts of gourmet ice cream. Pauline and Hazel loaded up on frozen broccoli in cheese sauce, lasagna with truffles, bourbon-laced ladyfingers, and French chocolate sauce.
At the one-minute mark, Mike yelled from the front of the store. "Candy in aisle five!" And a barrage of Toblerone chocolates, jars of roasted pumpkin seeds, and several six-, eight-, and twelve-packs of Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars landed atop the piles of meat, frozen food, and canned goods already in the cart.
In the final seconds, as Pauline and Hazel jammed the bottom rack with fresh pineapples and coconuts, Mom tried and failed to balance two family-sized bags of potato chips on the pyramid of cans that was now taller than the meat walls.
"Hurry, Mom!" Barb screamed, as Mom and the cart rocketed out of the produce section on the way to the checkout stand. Giving up trying to weigh the bags of chips down with cans of Finnish sardines as she ran, she grabbed a large candy cane from a Christmas display on her way by and stabbed it through the heart of the bags into a box of frozen bonbons below.
A cheer erupted from the assembled spectators as Mom rounded the magazine racks and nearly catapulted her teetering mountain of goods into the checkout aisle. "Time's up!" yelled Harvey, bringing his stopwatch down with a mighty click.
It was over.
In all, Mom netted $411.44 worth of food (the equivalent of $3,000 today), a fortune in our eyes.
Later we would learn to hide the imported food from him, but that night Dad inexplicably threw a dozen cans through the open back door into the yard.
We sat around the kitchen table, which was piled high with the rest of the canned delicacies, in silence. When Dad finally went to bed, Bruce turned to Mom. "What was that all about?"
"I don't know," she sighed. "He's been drinking."
"What exactly is caviar?" asked Barb.
"Fish eggs," said Mom.
A long silence engulfed the room. It was self-explanatory. No one was going to eat the caviar.
"Do you know that U.S. Army research has shown a relationship between intelligence and a willingness to eat unfamiliar foods?" Mom said.
Except for Mom, nobody would eat the lobster either -- it was just too different from fish sticks.
Copyright © 2001 by Terry Ryan