He was reaching for the top shelf then stopped. He moved his eyes to the next, lower shelf down and chose a jar. His hair was sheet white and his body frame resembled my father, tall and heavy set. His shirt was tucked into his trousers. He wore his loose car coat, pressed pants and fawn colored bucks. The pandemic had just set in and I was afraid, like many others, wearing our makeshift masks, looking like old-fashioned bank robbers who needed to stop by the grocery store on their way to the bank.
This elderly man near me was not wearing a mask. Was he made more vulnerable by choice or just not knowing? His age made him fragile, he was one we most needed to protect. Being next to him, watching him, while waiting my turn to select from the shelf---my own story of him emerged. I could see his wife ironing his collars, cooking and cleaning the house, showing her affection for him the best way she knew how. I imagined her death to be the only reason he was in the grocery store without a protective mask. She would have been there instead or at least insisted that he wear a mask. Like most, this was my first pandemic. Perhaps he had survived another earlier one and that had given him the courage to visit the grocery store unprotected by a mask, a wife.
This old man I did not know seemed familiar, vulnerable and worthy of care. Seeing him without knowing him, deepened my impressions. Was this a virtue blooming from a pandemic? Caring for an unmasked stranger simply by wearing a mask? At that moment I realized the virus had brought us closer.
I’d read that more expensive items are typically placed on the higher shelves and other items descend in price as they move toward the bottom of the shelving system. I think underneath his pressed clothes his body must hurt. I could see his shoulder’s limited reach. I imagined a relief as he used less effort to protect his shoulder and reached lower for the less expensive spaghetti sauce jar.
It was the first time I had cried openly in a grocery store. I cried seeing a man who looked so much like my father, taking only what he could reach. Thinking that fear and need brought him into such a public place-the grocery store. A place where his wife would have been strategic and focused, unlike his ambling about and unsure footing. Marriage can be like a prophylactic shield, I’ve often thought, protecting each other from places unfamiliar and dangerous. Now, a grocery store during a pandemic.
Italy was at the epicenter of the pandemic. I’d watch the story unfold with a cold grip before spring. I had students, co-workers and friends living and working in the Lombardi region where the virus was wielding itself, leaving few survivors. And here was this man with the American spaghetti jar in his hands. This trite connection of a fragile man, the jar of sauce and my own tears bared witness to all the tragedy happening in Italy, and now at home, and right here in the grocery store.
As I waited for him to select the jar, he was reading the top shelf but cautioned by the pain in his shoulder, his reach was lowered. Psychosomatic pain is real, I’d often told my husband. I could feel the burn in my own back from an old injury, a feeling of empathy, transparent and sliding through my body like an invisible wave. The more expensive jars were out of his reach, the store brand would have to do for now.
He turned and smiled before he moved on down the aisle, a smile I wouldn’t have seen if he had been wearing a mask. His eyes seemed to say, “I want to be with my wife.” Then it was my turn to select a jar. My glasses were fogging up from the mask I’d constructed, a thin scarf of brown and gold flowers doubled over and tied behind my head, and the tears kept coming even after the man had turned the corner of the aisle.
I looked at the jars on the top shelf. While I still can, while they are not out of my reach, I will take one I thought. And I took the most precious of the jars, the one written in partial Italian with a picture of a beautiful Italian woman on the label. It was expensive. Too expensive for many, if not most, in the store. For a moment I held the jar in my hand, then placed it in my cart. There, near me, was the whole of Italy, a jar made in America, a man and a woman I knew but didn’t know, the divide of wealth and worth, able and unable, a multi-colored world that needs my tears, our tears to remind us that we are not out of reach.