In The Presence

I’m preparing for the holidays, which means grocery shopping. I always make a list for my trip to the store but seldom have the commitment to stick to it. My lack of resolve is not usually due to any shortfall in the list. It lies more in my weakness for foods I like. I see something appealing and in the buggy it goes.

Dried cranberries are on my list. But just a few steps away and at the same eye-level, small bags of beautiful pecans are hanging. They are not on the list. In my head, they are singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” I stare at them. They stare back.

My mind begins to think about all the wonderful ways my mama used pecans. Large cookie sheets of pecan halves buttered and salted to perfection. How hard could that be. She made the best pecan pie, but pecan pie is hard. I am not experienced in pie making. I am experienced in butter, salt, and ovens set to 350°.

It is for this reason that Beth was always reluctant to allow me to do the grocery shopping. The few times that I did the shopping, I went with a list that she had meticulously prepared.

“Here’s the list. Are you sure you can do this?”

Her question had more to do with my ability to stick to the list than with my ability to do the shopping.

“I got this.”

She wavered. “If you see something you want that’s not on the list, buy it, but don’t go crazy.”

What she was saying was that I should let the list control my spending. What I heard was that the list was merely a guide to our minimum needs, and that I could come back with more if I wanted as long as I came back with everything on the list.

The only times I ever went to the grocery store alone was either as a quick stop to get bread and milk, or when she was sick and wasn’t up to the trip. Solo shopping for the main monthly supplies was a rarity. If I went, it was more often just to tag along with her and push the buggy. Grocery shopping could thereby be considered a kind of date.

The interesting thing to me is that, even though I am solo shopping, inside the grocery store is one of the places where she is with me. I’m looking at the choices of sliced ham for sandwiches, and her voice is telling me which ones to buy. I pick up a bottle of Crisco Vegetable Oil and put it in the buggy because that’s the one she would have had on her list. I open a carton of eggs and inspect all twelve of them just like I saw her do it, making sure nothing is broken.

Up and down each aisle, I am aware of the fact that she was thoughtful in the way she managed the restocking of our pantry at home. Nothing was random. She was thorough in her planning and had a purpose for almost everything that went into the buggy.

For example, she had recipes in mind when she shopped. Weeks before Christmas she would sit down on the couch and go through her recipe files. Sausage balls. Cookies. Congealed salads. Pound cakes. That cranberry-apple crunchy thing she made. Her list was specific to the things that only come out at Christmas.

Me. I do a quick run through at the house. I glance at the shelves and cupboards and fridge. My list is made in haste right before I go out the door. I cook on the fly and rarely consult a recipe. Consequently, I end up with three bottles of pancake syrup on the shelf in the pantry because, even though syrup was not on my list, I bought some because I like syrup and don’t want to run out.

I make a mental note to not buy syrup on my next trip, but then, the next time I’m at the store I stand in front of the syrup debating whether I have any at home. I might be low. I’d hate to make pancakes only to find out my cupboard is bare. In goes another bottle.

As the days get closer to Christmas I am mindful of loved ones from my past. The grocery store is just a snapshot of a much bigger world in which we live. The dead and the living; or rather, the living and the ones living still. I cannot see them or hear an audible voice, but their presence is nonetheless real to me. They are completely absent from the day-to-day wonderings of my life, yet they are with me in a way that I cannot ignore.

I suppose that if this world were all there is to living, they would absolutely be gone. Here for a short time and then no more. The connection would be cut off as fully as a light that goes off with the flip of a switch. But the world in which we live goes beyond the air which we breathe and the ground upon which we walk. The connection we have to those who are gone transcends a mere earthly existence. You can’t just flip a switch.

I cannot prove what I know. I only know from experience that this is the way it is for me. I am driving down the road, and somewhere along the way my dad joins me for a part of the ride. He doesn’t speak, but his presence moves me to think and make decisions in ways that have influenced me my whole life.

I’m sure the experts would describe it in psychological terms of neuron activity and sensory imprints. What I feel as a clear presence, they would describe as nothing more than the influence of a memory.

I’m not denying that memories move me, but I’m also not denying the living of their rightful place. All the questions that I thought I would ask of them cannot be asked because there is no voice. No hands can be held. No hugs can be shared. Yet, they are here. With me. Around me. Refusing to be absent just because they are gone for a while.

Most of the time they come in unexpected moments. One at a time. In the season of Christmas, they all seem to come at once like a reunion of sorts. And they do not bring sadness. They bring hearts full of love and joy and peace as you would expect. For they are glad to be living where they are and in this place, especially at Christmas.

When I got home from the store I placed all the bags on the counter. It takes several trips from the truck to the kitchen. I followed the list and then some.

I started moving my stock into the pantry. No pancake syrup. But when I placed a bottle of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup on the shelf, I placed it next to an unopened bottle already there.

That’s when I heard her laugh.