Today, a friend reminded me that there are almost no grocery stores on the near west side of Milwaukee. I realized with a start that my memories of this part of the city were formed in the 1960’s when I lived here with my family. Not far from our house on north 34th street was a Kroger […]

Today, a friend reminded me that there are almost no grocery stores on the near west side of Milwaukee. I realized with a start that my memories of this part of the city were formed in the 1960’s when I lived here with my family. Not far from our house on north 34th street was a Kroger grocery store on 35th Street where we did most of our food shopping. Usually, my mother did the shopping in a tearing rush on her way home from some place more interesting. She always forgot something essential like milk and then had to send one of us, usually our father, long suffering, or one of us, grumbling, back to the store later to get it.

Occasionally, when I was younger, she and I would go together and play one of two versions of a game she had invented to make the shopping time less boring. In one version of the game, we pretended to be criminals being chased by the cops. The idea was to sneak down the store aisles, grab the laundry soap and get it into the cart without getting caught by any of the other shoppers, i.e. the cops, and whispering conspiratorially to each other as we gathered the loot. In the other version and my favorite, we were lunatics escaped from an asylum and again, the thing was to avoid detection by the other unsuspecting shoppers while we whispered mad sayings to each other and lurched up and down the aisles. I did most of the lurching. She usually pushed the cart. But occasionally, we would get caught and stared at and then had to try to pull it together until we had gotten past the shopper, often still looking back at us with suspicion clearly written on their faces.

One time when I was in my late twenties, temporarily at home after a divorce and my sister  in her teens, the three of us went to the Kroger’s to stock up. I have no idea why the three of us were there together. Possibly, it was one of those times we had let the pantry get so empty that in order to ward off starvation, we were forced out to forage in a big way. On this night, after we had finished gathering our groceries pretty much like everyone else and had loaded up our old yellow Willys Jeep, we piled in, my mother urging us to hurry to “get all this stuff home before your brother and father pass out from hunger.” It was well past our usually late dinner hour, but we all knew my brother was probably in his bedroom lifting weights, oblivious to food, and our father ate enough for a small bird, no matter how late our dinner hour.

I clambered into the front seat, and there was barely any room left for my sister to squeeze in next to the bags in the back. I think it started with my sister complaining as she always did about being squeezed in the back, and I, trying to appease her and fill my own stomach, tore open a box of Cheerios, took out a handful and passed the box back to her. My mother climbed into the driver’s seat, but instead of starting the engine, she rolled down her window to let in some of the early summer breezes, and then asked for the Cheerios as well, which set my sister to whining again and my mother, as much to shut her up as anything, began to call out “clean cups, clean cups,” in her best Mad Hatter voice.

Now, this was not in any way a new idea because we spent a lot of time reciting from Alice’s adventures and relegating family members to play the different characters. My sister often got to play Alice because she had long, straight brown hair which irritated me as I thought I should play the starring role and not be relegated to the part of the nice White Queen. But in truth, my sister had more of Alice’s sensible nature than the rest of us. Sometimes she would agree to be The March Hare to appease me. My mother, of course, was the Red Queen and a formidable one, and my brother played a fine Mad Hatter, sometimes trading him in for The Knave and my daughter, who also had long, brown hair, either fought with my sister for Alice or contented herself with playing the Hare, while my son, still quite small, made a perfect sleepy dormouse.

We always made plans to take it outside one day in the lot next to the big dining room bay windows where we would set up a picnic table and hold a real Wonderland tea party under the trees. But like many ideas in our family, planning it right down to which tablecloth we’d use and what cups was a lot easier than actually doing all that manual labor, and we never quite got it together. Rather, we just stayed inside and acted our parts at the kitchen table over dinner or later in the evening having our customary late night tea.

On this night, with only the three of us, we mostly just recited passages as we  remembered them, continuing to open packages of easily consumed foodstuff and passing the bottle of milk back and forth between us. Any time a car pulled in next to us, one of us would call out “no room, move down, clean cups” and we would shriek with laughter.  At some point, we realized most of the other shoppers had left, and still we lingered. Finally, my mother put the car into gear, and began to lazily drive around in a large circle, and the windows rolled down let in the cool breeze, coming off the Lake, and the concrete turning into a dark smudge in front of us. We drove lazily in larger and larger circles, loathe to go home, to leave the darkening car, the three of us who would soon be separated by marriages, by education, by death. And my sister leaning out, her long hair swirling against the blue-black sky bright now with stars, suspended in time, our breath warming the car, lazy, with all the time in the world that we thought was still ahead of us.