A few weeks ago I was standing in the checkout line at Target unloading a cartload of canned and frozen food and toiletries onto the conveyor belt when the young man at the register pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. It was Grandpa’s handkerchief: large, grey from too many washings without bleach, and wadded up into a ball.

The young man blew his nose into it, not once but a few times, and shoved it back into his pants pocket. He proceeded to scan my items and drop them into bags.

“Do you have a cold?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Nope.”

I asked if it wouldn’t be good form to use hand sanitizer anyway. His face turned tired and the bags he filled up he literally tossed into my cart. It wasn’t until after he was done that he squirted too much sanitizer into his hands. He handed me my wet and stained receipt and told me to have a great day.

When I got home I wiped down every single thing I’d bought.

“Just humor me here,” I told John, who was standing in the doorway with his arms folded.

I thought of calling the store to lodge a complaint, but in all honesty I think I’m just going to stop shopping there. The associates who work there use walkie-talkies now, and their static-y voices are everywhere you go in the store. One associate followed me around for two aisles with a hand-held inventory-taker the size of a universal TV remote that spoke in monotone: “Five Totino’s pizzas, pepperoni.” “Ten Tropicana frozen orange juice, calcium.” “Fourteen Welch’s grape jam, 8-ounce.” When I ask another associate for help finding something, I say, “Hi. Can you help me?” She looks at me. Her walkie-talkie is going full-tilt. “Hello!” I say, a little louder this time. She stands up straighter. “Oh, yeah, hi,” she says.

Cut to a few days later. As I reach into the vegetable drawer of our fridge, I remove the plastic tag from a bag of Granny Smith apples. It reads: “Coated with food grade vegetable and or shellac based resin to maintain freshness.”

I freak out and email Denise, who knows a lot about these things.

“Resin?” I write. “Shellac?”

She quells me with some tips for removing it from our apples with non-petroleum-based soap. Her recommendation: Earth Friendly products. I have yet to buy any, and don’t tell her but I am still washing our apples with the Dawn we have at the sink.

Robin, you sound like a freak, you are probably saying to yourself, washing your stuff from Target and scrubbing your apples. Yes. I admit that the older I get, the tad more phobic I get. I don’t kill bugs; I free them. I wash my hands throughout the day because I touch things other people touch and don’t want to get sick. When leaves blow in through the front door, I throw them back outside. I am grossed out by Grandpa’s big old hankie. I don’t want to eat shellac resin. Which comes from a bug. Did you know that?

If I’m a bit of a freak, so be it.

It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. We found out last August that her cancer had come back. She immediately went into home hospice care.

Three weeks later I drove to Ohio to see her. We talked. Ate together, drank tea together. Looked at her cookbooks. Went shopping. Cried.

Then, what started out so brilliantly ended up in a fight, like so many times before. And I went where I had gone so many times before: away. The last time I saw my mother alive, things were said that shouldn’t have been said, and the last she saw of me was my backside as I walked out of the room.

Seven weeks later, she died. John and I drove in for her funeral. Afterward he returned to Milwaukee for school; I stayed in Ohio.

Later that week my brother Eric picked me up in his truck and we rode out to my parents’ farm, where he and my father grow organic produce. I hadn’t been there in years. We harvested all kinds of things for the farmers market the next day. The day of the funeral, their booth was empty.

I look back on a year ago from today and remember—and still feel—that it was an extraordinarily stressful time. And an extraordinarily beautiful time. I remember the fight between me and my mother. The things we said. The things that were said at her funeral. All the photos of her and my family that my father laid out in chronological order, many of which I had never seen before. The people that were there. Jan, my girlfriend whose husband had died unexpectedly the year before, holding my hand tight. John in a suit. John, who’s always there for me, even when I push him away. Especially when I push him away.

I remember the austerity of the farm. The sound wind makes when it rustles through corn. Gossiping with Eric about people we know while pulling up radishes. Dirt ground into the cracks of your hands and the knees of your pants. Learning that there is more than one kind of Swiss chard, more than one kind of kale. That you can grow lettuce, and all manner of things, outdoors all winter long under a tarp. Reaching under that tarp and harvesting that lettuce for the farmers market the next day. Which I go to with my father and brother. Five days after the funeral of his wife. Our mother.

No fluorescent lights. No branding. No walkie-talkies.





Denise sent me this excellent seven-year-old San Francisco Chronicle essay, a copy of which she keeps with her recipes: Is Safeway Sucking Your Soul?



  1. “No fluorescent lights. No branding. No walkie-talkies.” Beautiful. Simply beautiful. And stop washing things you intend to eat with Dawn.

  2. Very nice. Makes me think that one day we will get out of this city and our little apartment and be able to grow our own produce in our backyard somewhere.

  3. Thanks, Robin! John, one day soon I will have 2 good paws again and I will get even for that!

  4. I’ve been washing produce with soap and water for years. I must be doing something right. No colds, no flu…works for me. I also keep wipes around the house to clean remotes, phones, doorknobs, etc.
    I totally get where you’re coming from.

    • John drives a truck part-time while he’s going to school, loading and unloading and getting pretty sweaty and dirty in the process. About once a week I’ve taken to wiping down the interior of our car, which is used mostly by him to get back and forth to work and school, particularly the steering wheel. The cloth I use to clean that steering wheel always comes back filthy. Thanks for your comment, Sal.

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