Lessons and Carols from the Check-Out Line


Truth be told, I’m not much for secular Christmas celebrations.  I know some people love hanging ornaments and baking cookies for days.  Many even enjoy firing up the virtual Yule Log for some digital crackle and pop.

But me?  Not so much.

To be blunt, I think the holidays are hell on women.

Now before you dash off a response to the complaint department, let me say that I know many men pull more than their share during the holidays.  My own 85 year-old father is hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for twelve people and a dachshund. He’s been cleaning house and stocking in groceries for days, bless him.

But all in all, it’s women who do most of the slog work this time of year: writing notes in  cards, buying presents, wrapping gifts, scrubbing toilets, shopping for fresh cranberries, making the guest beds, finding that kind of dark chocolate a nephew likes—you know what I mean.

Speaking as a member of the XY chromosome club, we bring a lot of this on ourselves.  We really do want everyone to have a picture-perfect holiday and we may be predisposed to obsess about details.  Years ago, my late mother taught me to make little notes in a Christmas card registry that would trigger my memory when writing comments in holiday cards.  “Did Jon play baseball again this summer?”  “How’s that new dog doing, Carl?”  As much as I would like to be less prepossessed about these matters, I simply can’t.  I feel it’s an affront to the lessons my mother taught me. I already disappointed her enough when I was ten and rejected her sewing instruction; I can’t ditch the Christmas card registry and the little notes.

But, I’ve been better about letting go other holiday chores.  Take cookie baking, for example.  I am a pretty fair cook. I subscribe to Bon Appetit and regularly watch Ina Garten on the Food Network. Well, really I listen to Ina. It’s the calm of her voice that soothes.  If Ina’s voice were a color, it would be cerulean. She’s that good.

But I’m terrible at cookie baking. Every cookie comes out too hard no matter how much I trim the baking time. Why can’t I bake a decent chocolate chip cookie?  Three years ago, my family flat-out asked me to stop baking Christmas cookies. I acquiesced with gratitude and shame.

This morning I made my pre-holiday excursion to the grocery store.  I couldn’t help but notice the tired look in many women’s eyes.  One woman was walking down the cracker aisle, deep in thought and using a role of wrapping paper as a cane. Another grandma-type had a baby in the front seat of her cart and he was screaming for a donut. Grandma jingled keys in front of her progeny while she hastily scanned the ingredient list on the back of a can of gravy.  No doubt someone in her household needed low salt. I suspected Grandma needed a valium.

Wanna guess what the bill was?

But the most tired woman I encountered was Shirley.  Shirley works as a bagger in the check-out lanes. She is about my age, has a soft, friendly face and lives in nearby group home for adults with developmental disabilities.

Often when I finish the last aisle of shopping, I look for Shirley’s lane because I enjoy talking with her.  Shirley asks me the same question every week when the heavy bag of cat litter comes through and all those cans of Fancy Feast. “How many cats you got?” We talk about what cats like to eat and she points out how much work a pet can be.  “But they’re worth it,” she always says.

This morning when I came through Shirley’s aisle, she looked tired. It seemed the holidays had taken a toll on her good-natured demeanor, too. She didn’t notice as I pushed the bag of potatoes down the conveyor belt or all those cans of cat food. No doubt, Shirley already had seen her share that day of harried and self-absorbed customers like me. She yawned and talked to the bagger in the next lane, another resident from the group home.  “We’ve got a lot to do before Christmas,” I heard her say.

“Merry Christmas, Shirley,” I said.

“Yeah, Merry Christmas,” she mumbled.  I had never heard such a drained and tapped- out response in my life.

Shirley didn’t raise her eyes as she helped bag my eight sacks of groceries.  I hate to admit it, but I was too busy arranging the cart to look up and say anything else.  All I could think of was getting home in time to unpack the groceries, make the guest beds, and have dinner on the table for guests by six.

“Gotta cat?” Shirley asked, noticing the Fancy Feast cans.

“Just one right now,” I answered.

Shirley sighed and took a deep breath.

“They’re worth it,” she said.

I had to agree. And all that jingle bell ringing, gift wrapping and guest bed making?  It’s probably worth it, too.

2 Responses to “Lessons and Carols from the Check-Out Line”

  1. Becky Colton says:

    Merry Christmas Martha and Chief! Hope you are able to find some calm and bright in this holiday season!

  2. Tinky says:

    I have actually learned to cut back lately at Christmas–simpler meals, quieter shopping, quieter me. I do agree about the cats. Merry Christmas to you both, Martha!

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