Grand Union and My Mother's Career
1976 the Grand Union supermarket in Wayne, New Jersey, started giving
out race cards with every purchase. Each card represented a horse
that was scheduled to race every other Friday night at 7:30 pm on
Channel 9, WROR. The idea was to collect a card for every horse
in the race; if you had a card on the winning horse, and if that
card had a star when you scratched away the silver, you could win
the big ten grand. Just like that -- a woman like my mother could
14 years old in 1976, the year that my mother tried to quit smoking
for the first time. She, Pat Taylor, came from a long line of smokers.
At Grandma's house, there was an ashtray next to every chair --
even a stand-up ashtray next to the toilet. If you stood on Grandma's
lawn in summer, the house, with all its windows open, appeared to
be on fire. These weren't the kind of smokers a person could get
mad at either because my mother's family began smoking long before
those medical warnings appeared on the side of every pack. They
came of age in a generation of feel-good smokers, a time when three
out of every four people in the elevator were smoking. My mother
was destined to be a smoker the way some girls were destined to
become nuns. Not smoking for my mother was like not sleeping indoors
or not speaking English.
our own house, my mother did not keep a stand-up ashtray next to
the toilet but there were ashtrays in all the closets whenever she
tried to quit. By 1976, the party was over for smokers. We kids
used to come home from our junior high health classes and hand our
mother laminated photographs of black cancerous lungs: "And
your lungs, Mom, are probably worse!" By 1976 it was illegal
to advertise cigarettes on television, and by then, maybe only one
person was still smoking on the elevator and that person looked
mother cut down to half a pack a day. To compensate, she allowed
herself these other things: exotic jellied candies which she kept
hidden behind the tea cups; arm wrestling; and the Grand Union horse
races. My mother weighed 110 pounds but could arm wrestle my father,
and most who challenged her, to their knees. When wrestling, the
tendons jumped out of my mother's neck like taut rope and her head
shook and her mouth turned inside out and her skin turned red as
her lipstick. It looked as if all the rotten things that ever happened
to her might just start shooting right out of her ears. Then, when
the knuckles of grown men twice my mother's size were finally ground
into the patterns of our vinyl tablecloths, my mother would sit
back, brush off her Kresgee's housecoat, and light up a Newport.
Newports were mentholated and, according to their ads, transported
the smoker into a world of cool blue pleasure. But that didn't happen
to my mom. Her washed-out housecoat, the yellowing wallpaper --
all remained exactly the same.
trouble really started when my mother cut down to five Newports
a day. For incentive, my father pointed out her non-smoking life
expectancy on his life insurance charts. A non-smoker lived 30%
longer. "Smokers," he told my mother, "gamble with
of us, not my brother or sister or even my father saw the horse
races coming. My mother had never before shown a propensity toward
real gambling, not even Bingo. No, the horse races snuck
up on us. Had my mother known it was gambling, she surely would
have denied herself such a depraved indulgence. But it didn't seem
like gambling; it seemed like
well, like grocery shopping.
white patent leather purse soon began to fill up with cards. We
watched her after dinner, spreading all her cards out onto the tablecloth
to count and recount them. By the first race she had a card on all
but two competing horses. Certain horses, like Jupiter's Moon, my
mother had ten cards for; others like Renegade, she only had one.
When the race came on, she had all her cards lined up in front of
the TV. WROR was one of the stations you had to have a kid hold
the antenna to watch so that was what my brother and sister and
I took turns doing. Still, the vertical rolled non-stop so all we
could make out was a few horse legs here and there. What we did
was listen to the announcer who talked faster than we had ever heard
a man talk before. "We've got Jupiter's Moon neck and neck
with Sable McGee who's comin' up from behind
" My mother
was on her knees in front of the screen, mumbling Hail Marys, screaming
out horse names. "Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with
thee, GO RENEGADE! Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the
fruit of thy womb Jesus, Holy Mary mother of God pray for our sinners
now and at the hour -- LET'S GO JUPITER'S MOON!" When Sable
McGee made her photo finish she got up and kicked the TV. Sable
McGee, one of two cards my mom didn't have.
so rigged, Ma!" My older sister told her.
Ma," I put my arm around her. "You think they printed
even one Sable McGee card?"
a rip-off Ma; they just want you to buy more groceries."
whatever reason, my mother simply could not accept this. I imagine
she went to sleep at night with the Sable McGee card floating above
her head. It must have stayed with her, too, when she washed all
the dishes, and particularly when she laid her single items onto
the Grand Union check-out belt. This was how she began to shop --
by the single item.
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