An old cuss in a MAGA mask
limps past me, going against
the taped arrows on the aisle
floor. I get a close-up view
of his milky eyes trying to
focus under the fluorescents,
one arthritic hand cupping
a gallon of boxed ice cream.
Before his about-face, I had felt
the need to avert my eyes
from the pink chapped skin
and butt crack visible above
the failing strap of chestnut leather
as I awaited my turn in the
cooler. Even from six feet away.
“At least he was wearing a mask,”
says Steve, admiring the human capacity
for ideological paradox, when I recount
the run-in. As I move through
the grocery store I attempt,
beneath my social timidity, to project
exasperation solely with my eyes. Like a child
who has learned that smoking is bad
and can’t help finger-wagging
at the adults. A docile New England
citizen, I usually settle for a
Horton Hears a Who! harrumph
upon reaching the safety
of the Subaru. My internalized State
is deep, good, and fair, and I cannot
bear to part with it.
Running this market gamut weekly
we enter prepared, geared up
for a surgical strike, strategy in hand.
“Generalísimo Moxley,” Steve calls me
as I grip the four-by-six grocery list
and lay out the plan of action.
We enter through the touchless doors
to face the rows of sanitized carts.
The greeter stands before a table
of masks wielding a gun of cheap
disinfectant. He’s young and deserves
to live, I think. Someone with
his same job was just shot dead
in a Michigan Dollar Store
by a man who proclaimed before
his quivering family that he
“thought this was a free country.”
My ugly “Covid clogs,”
consigned to outings but disallowed
in the house, have acquired a piece
of parking-lot grit, a test of my
“Princess and the Pea” proclivities.
But we’re more relaxed
than two months ago, since we
became less worried about “fomite
transmission.” And more people are wearing
masks. Even the old cuss, though
loyal to Trump, follows the Hannaford rules.
Then there’s the super-tan couple—
probably from away, as they call
out-of-staters in Maine. The man
is erratic and defiant, moving illogically
through the sections, crowding the space.
His mask drifts off his face
while his girlfriend negotiates
her discomfort. She gives me a
what can you do, he’s a man
smile with her eyes. Mine is two
aisles away, in the pet section,
negotiating a forty-pound box of Clump
& Seal litter, with “ultra odor
blasters.” I think of that scene in
Can You Ever Forgive Me? when the
heroine’s drinking buddy discovers
the stores of cat poop under her bed
and I experience a shiver of disgust.
A needed “aesthetic category,”
according to a celebrated scholar,
who once poured me a large glass
of wine in a plastic Star Trek cup.
Ah! the good old days of grad school,
when we had to chat up strangers
in video stores and used bookstores
in our quest to find an audience
for our cultural savoir faire.
There are still no Oscar Mayer
Selects beef franks. And no
braunschweiger, “not even for ready
money,” as my mom liked to say,
quoting Oscar Wilde. “It’s not even
available to order,” I learn from the lifer
in the meat department. That’s
the standard response these days.
There’s a full shelf of Goya products,
due to the boycott, but the Campbell’s
canned soup has been decimated.
“At least we know there’s plenty
of soup, just no cans,” says Steve,
as he heard someone say recently
on the radio news. It’s unappetizing,
I think, to eat canned soup in
the heat of summer, the slightly gummy
gelatinous warmth of too soft vegetables
in salty broth. A few tiny cubes
of chewy chicken.
What did mass-produced canned
food taste like to the women of 1900?
That’s the year my mother’s mother,
Leola Isabel Warnock Freeman,
was born. I am ashamed to admit
that until I googled and found
a photo of her tombstone on
FindAGrave.com, I had no
idea of the day or month of her birth.
March 21. It says it right there on
the flat slate grave marker,
beneath her name and death date,
August 21, 1989, seven months
before her youngest child,
my mother, would die at home
of breast cancer. To the right
of my grandmother’s name
hangs a decorative rosary in relief.
As I zoom in to get a closer look,
an ad pops up. Three photo-booth-style
images of the same Kim Kardashian
look-alike wearing a mask
with a clear window to allow
her glossy nude lip to be admired
in full pout mode. $5.99.
“The internet knows more
about my grandmother than I do,”
I tell Steve at lunch. “That’s your
first line,” he quips, as if aware I’ve started
this poem. Too late; that slot is taken.
I find a painting by her on eBay
of naked nymphs in a green arcadia.
By a “Texas Impressionist,” the seller
states, though I know she made her living
primarily doing portraits. It was smack
in the middle of the influenza epidemic,
when she left El Paso, Texas,
in order to study painting
As a Texan, I suppose my grandmother
might have opened a can of Campbell’s
tomato soup to take the chill off
the Philadelphia winter. In 1900, Campbell’s
won a medal for “product excellence”
at the Paris Olympic Games and International Exposition.
It was the science of condensing that gave them
the edge. Perhaps this is the secret origin
of Pound’s mandate: condensare. The soup
that changed American poetry. I never
noticed the medal on the label before.
Perhaps because I buy their
Healthy Request line, which lacks
the familiar gold disk depicting
a sensuous art nouveau Victory,
flying horizontally, laurel in hand.
A male athlete, holding a torch, sits
heavily on her back, seemingly unaware
that his weight is being supported by
a goddess in diaphanous dress.
Opening plastic produce bags
without wetting one finger with your tongue
is challenging. Steve follows behind me,
preparing several bags in advance.
I hold up a bunch of green leaf lettuce,
draining the water accumulated
from the produce sprinklers
before stuffing it, curls first, into
the bag. My effort will prove ineffectual.
By the time we get home the bag
will have accumulated enough liquid
to house a goldfish. I know I’m
not supposed to overtouch produce,
but I cheat a little. When has the first peach
you reach for ever been “the one”?
In a 1961 article in the El Paso
Herald-Post profiling the Artist of the Month,
the town’s “premier portrait painter”
is described as a “slight gray-haired
grandmother.” In ’61 my grandmother
was only, well, sixty-one, just five years older
than I am now. The article makes her seem
like a sweet old lady who thinks she’s
a painter. And the title, “Worked Eight
Hours a Day Teaching Self to Paint,”
erases her formal training. That’s her
doing, according to the writer: “She
considers herself self-taught.” “People
in the West have to be self-taught
in order to be taken seriously,” says Steve.
What was my grandmother pulling? I think.
But then again, I’d never say, “I was trained
how to write poetry in school,” though
there is some truth to it.
Was my grandmother called to paint,
just as Helen Gahagan knew she was
destined for the stage? The actress,
singer, and politician was born the same
year as my grandmother, 1900, right around
the Thanksgiving holiday. By the time
of the flu pandemic she had fled
Barnard for Broadway, never to look back.
My grandmother was studying at the
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
when Gahagan opened at Philly’s
National Theatre in the role
of the “simple bookkeeper Paula,”
who is kind to a beleaguered haberdasher,
in the tepidly reviewed Fashions for Men.
Perhaps Lloyd Freeman, my grandmother’s
painting teacher and soon-to-be husband,
invited the pretty young Texan out to see
the new sensation, the beautiful, earnest
Helen Gahagan, and they went in spite
of the pandemic. Twenty-six years
her senior, he held her slight waist lightly,
guiding her out of the stuffy theater into
the chilly night air.
While in Philadelphia, Helen
Gahagan was also pursued by an older
man. The famous conductor Leopold
Stokowski sent her tickets to hear
his orchestra and invited her out to lunch.
She had been warned to avoid
him if she valued her reputation.
Did she value “her reputation”?
Did my grandmother value hers? A good
Catholic away from her parents
among the bohemians in a big
eastern city …
The only liquid hand soap
left is one sad bottle of Method
in “Sea Minerals” scent.
The plastic bleachers designed
to hold the hand soaps are as empty
as the nation’s performing arts venues.
Apparently I’m not the only one
who dislikes Sea Minerals.
What is a sea mineral anyway?
Salt? Except in the kitchen
I prefer bar soap, though not
the melty frozen-orange-juice-colored
Dial I grew up with, but triple-milled
hard soaps that smell like goats.
My mother had a pet
goat named Gwendolyn whom
she spoke of with far more fondness
than she ever did of her mother.
What kind of child doesn’t love
her mother? “Such a child wouldn’t
be a child at all, but a monster.” This
is the conclusion the young
Nathalie Sarraute arrives at
in her memoir of childhood,
Enfance. First there’s the betrayal:
She finds a doll in a shop window
more beautiful than her mother.
Then there’s the naivete: She
tells her mother of the aesthetic
judgment. Instead of understanding,
the mother abstracts the young Nathalie
with a quip: “A child who loves
her mother finds no one more
beautiful than she.” I’m just a child,
among others, Nathalie thinks, a real
child loves her mother …
Sarraute, who lived to be ninety-nine,
was born in Russia in 1900, though
she sometimes fibbed and gave the date
as 1902. While influenza was raging,
she attended three universities,
the Sorbonne, Oxford, and the
University of Berlin. She studied
English, history, and philosophy
before becoming a lawyer and
then one of the most celebrated
writers of the nouveau roman.
Though they shared a birth year
and a century, I doubt my grandmother
ever read Sarraute. But she did like to read,
or so I surmise from a lost-world
tidbit my own mother shared in a 1989 letter.
She had just bought a copy of
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
at Price Club and offered to send
it to Providence after she was finished
reading it, if it was good (it was):
“My mother and I used to mail books
back and forth,” she wrote, “book rate,
which at that time was about 68¢
a pound and consequently
cheaper than buying the books on
both coasts.” Sarraute’s legendary
first book, Tropismes, was published
in France in 1939 but wouldn’t
be available in English until 1963,
translated by Maria Jolas and
published by John Calder. My
grandmother could speak Spanish,
but I don’t think she ever knew
What magical time
was my mother referring to when
she was on such good terms with
my grandmother that they shared
bestsellers through the U.S. mail?
What “coasts” did she mean to
evoke, given that my grandmother
lived in El Paso, deserts away
from any ocean?
Three years after publishing
her first novel, Sarraute, who was
Jewish, refused to wear the yellow
felt star she was issued. She went
to the countryside and pretended
to be the governess of her own
children. According to the
Jewish Women’s Archive, although
Sarraute’s writing “deals neither
with the matter of being Jewish,
nor with antisemitism,” in its impulse
it counters “every sort of racism,
terrorism and tyranny.”
“She makes no apologies for
practicing a branch of art some artists
depreciate,” wrote the journalist about
my grandmother. According to her,
portrait painters “must be able to project
… into the personality of the sitter,
thinking and feeling as the sitter thinks
and feels.” A devout Catholic, my
grandmother spent many of her
later years living itinerantly. She
volunteered in orphanages
in Mexico. How do I know this?
After I was about eleven years old
I was never allowed to see
my grandmother, because
during one of her rare visits
she made the mistake of trying
to take me and my brothers to
Mass and was banned from
our house for good.
I feel so much trepidation
as I approach the popcorn section
in the snack aisle and see
a gaping hole. On bended knee
I peer into the void. To my relief,
there in the shadows I spy
a last remaining jar of Orville
Redenbacher’s Original yellow.
I feel a sense of triumph mixed
with a slight twinge of petulant
selfishness. During the first
few months of the pandemic,
this sort of last-one-on-the-shelf
experience made me panicky.
But I had to admit, when I
looked around, that though
some things were sold out,
the supermarket was still
full of food.
Saved from Leopold Stokowski’s
seduction, Helen Gahagan met
her husband, the future Hollywood
leading man Melvyn Douglas,
when they costarred in the play
Tonight or Never in 1930, the year
Lloyd Freeman, my grandfather,
succumbed to double pneumonia,
leaving Leola a widow with
four little kids. He died
twenty-nine days after his wife’s
thirtieth birthday, six months after
the stock market crash and the birth
of my mother, his last child.
Following his funeral my grandmother
was forced to return to El Paso to live
with her aging parents.
Marrying Melvyn Douglas
sounded the death knell of Helen
Gahagan’s Broadway career. But
she continued to train as an opera
singer. After a smashing tour
of Europe, she was signed
to sing Tosca in the 1938 season
of the Vienna Opera Company.
A dream of a lifetime, which
abruptly ended when an English
music critic took her into
his confidence: “Aryans such as we
have a duty to defend the superior
race against Jews,” he said. Helen
ripped up her contract and returned
to Los Angeles. Soon after, the
pregnant with her and Melvyn’s
There are no wipes of any kind
to be found on the shelves at Hannaford.
“Our entire childhood,” I say to Steve,
“we managed to live without any form
of disinfecting wipe.” The year
the women born in 1900 turned
thirty-one, the Scott Paper Company
introduced the paper towel roll,
expressly for the kitchen. It is doubtful
my newly widowed grandmother
paid any attention. Housewives,
I read on another website,
“had a hard time grasping
the concept of towels you
don’t have to wash.”
The subject line in the email
from eBay reads: “Leola Freeman Texas …
still of interest?” Yes, I think,
filled with regret. Why did I accept
without question my mother’s moratorium
on this woman? My childhood, like that
of many white Californians,
was blissfully free of extended
family. On my left hand I wear
a ring engraved with the initials
w. j .w. to j. c. s.: William Joseph
Warnock to Josephine Cecilia Sheley.
These, I can reconstruct from the
record, were the parents of my
I assume that Josephine Cecilia,
called “Mama Jo” by my mother,
helped her widowed daughter
to raise her four kids. I picture
my grandmother’s relationship
with my mother as being almost that
of an older and a younger sister.
In the mid-forties Helen Gahagan Douglas
enrolled her children in boarding school
and threw herself into politics,
mentored by Eleanor Roosevelt.
There’s not one single box
of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain &
Wild Rice Original Recipe
on the shelf. No rice of any kind.
I’ve eaten Uncle Ben’s since I
was a child without much thinking
about the way “Uncle Ben” echoes
Uncle Tom from Beecher Stowe’s
novel, which is why the company
has since changed the name to
just plain “Ben’s.” Sarraute knew
Stowe’s book in a children’s edition
when she was growing up in Russia
and Paris as La Case de l’oncle Tom.
Her copy, she tells us in
Enfance, was soaked through
with tears. I’m baffled by the
hoarding of rice. I thought potatoes
were the American carbohydrate
of choice. But rice is cheap
and lasts forever.
As a congresswoman,
Helen Gahagan Douglas represented
the fourteenth district in Los Angeles,
with a large African American
population. “I just love the
Negro people!” she once said
ham-fistedly at a Black church
while on the campaign trail.
This was the “love” that Richard Nixon
would use to destroy her career.
When he ran against her for the
California Senate seat in 1950,
his campaign mail-bombed the
white suburbs with a flyer
claiming to be from the
of Negro Women” in support
of her candidacy. That there
was no such organization
made no difference once
he’d stoked white fears.
There’s no Land O’Lakes
white American cheese in the
cooler, only Kraft, which is
thinner and more plasticky.
And “Mia,” the Native woman
on Land O’Lakes products, is
also MIA, removed out of
cultural sensitivity, though
she had been redrawn in 1954
by Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait.
I grab some Philadelphia Cream
Cheese and a block of jalepeño jack.
Strangely, there’s no shortage of
cheese, but the buttermilk
is gutted. It must have something
to do with the mania for baking
that has overtaken the nation,
the comfort of pancakes
and warm dough.
Was my grandmother
domestic? There are no recipes
of hers among those in my mother’s
cookbook. In photos she’s thin
and elegant, posing behind a camera
or in front of an easel. In the fifties
she built a beautiful adobe studio
on South Concepcion Avenue in El Paso.
The inside was spare and neatly
kept. A pigskin chair, the torso
of a woman, a Mexican blanket
and water pitcher. By this time
she’d remarried, to a watercolorist
named McElroy whom my mother
rarely mentioned. Was my
grandmother sexually satisfied?
The last forty years of Helen
Gahagan Douglas’s marriage
were sexless. Melvyn wanted
to stay together but continue
to have affairs. It’s rumored
that Helen had some sort of
dalliance with LBJ. Nathalie
Sarraute outlived her slightly
younger husband, whom she’d
met in law school, by fourteen years.
I no longer need to frequent
either the Family Planning
or Feminine Hygiene sections
of the supermarket. Who came
up with these euphemisms?
After moving obediently from
one Twister-like red floor sticker
to the next, Steve and I finally
make it to the checkout. The
small woman with buck teeth
and a mustache who has worked
at Hannaford for as long as I can
remember looks like a welder
behind her face shield. She can’t
hear a word we say. Out of habit
she reaches around the plexiglass barrier
and hands me the paper receipt.
It is the year 2020
in the time of Covid. Nobody born
in 1900 is still alive. Helen Gahagan
Douglas died of breast cancer
in 1980, my grandmother of
Alzheimer’s in 1989. An African American
woman named Denilla cared
for her in her final years.
My mother, on a rare trip to visit,
had come to know this caregiver.
“Mother loved hearing Denilla’s voice,”
she wrote to me. “At times I
felt that it was the one thing
anchoring her mind to reality.”
would live until two months
before the start of this century,
writing her memoir of childhood
in her eighties and publishing
up to the end.
I want to live to be
as old as my grandmother,
I think to myself, and stay as lucid
as Nathalie Sarraute. I remove
my mask once we’re safely
back inside the car. I wonder
how many hours the women
of 1900 spent on trains?
I wipe the soil, made by the fog
of my trapped breath, off
my fragile glasses. Steve helps
himself to a healthy pump
of Purell, takes a deep breath,
and starts up the car.