my safe haven

walking through my favorite grocery store, New Seasons in Portland, I’m immediately greeted with the sweet scent of fresh flowers tempting me to pick them up and bring them home. I walk through the baked goods and I’m drawn to the buttery croissants, reminding me of walking through the streets of Paris early in the morning with my sister Marina. I make my way to the produce, eyeing the colorful bell peppers, the fresh kale, and the ripe papayas. I always stop by the chocolate aisle and get wrapped up looking through all of the chocolate bars, checking out the new ones and revisiting old favorites. at least one chocolate bar always makes it in my cart.

my love of the grocery store hasn’t been just a passionate fling. it’s been a tired, tested, and true love affair stemming from early childhood and has become a theme throughout adulthood.

my first experience with the grocery store was with my mom. I was around 7. we had immigrated from Russia a year ago and lived on food stamps and prayers and hope. our house was a small duplex that was a fourth of the house we had in Russia. even though it was in a bad part of town and brothers had to sleep on the couches every night, it was a short walk to the community college where my mom took classes to get an AA degree, and my dad tried to provide for us by working in the kitchen. in those days, my mom would fill us up with lots of love despite our material lack, she gave me American style short haircuts that I loved, and I had Russian neighbors that became my first friends in this country and taught me to play baseball (I eventually broke a neighbor’s window…).

about a couple miles from our duplex was Raleys, a higher-end grocery store that my mom would take us too. there she shopped and managed to get enough groceries to feed our family of five through food stamps and a resourceful mind. my sisters and I would make the mile trek there and back, probably complaining about our tired feet as my mom tried her best to distract us from our hardships. I remember walking through the grocery store where everything had a place, where every need could be filled, and possibilities seemed endless. it was a sharp contrast to the chaos of our lives, where we were trying to learn a new language, culture, and facing tight finances, which brought out the worst of my dad’s anger. but at Raley’s, I loved walking through the prepared food section and looking at all the different foods we’ve never tried, it made my belly grumble. I can still remember the wondrous scent of fresh orange chicken and chow mien that my mom would treated us to years later. I loved seeing all the different options in front of my eyes, the pretty flowers and balloons that I always secretly dreamed of receiving on my birthdays. even though the trip back to our small home was tough, and the hot, dry Sacramento heat would beat down on us, we all tried to keep our spirits high for my mom and all of her sacrifices for us as we carried the grocery bags together.

those memories of feeling safe and hopeful at the grocery store echoed throughout my adult life.

some of my favorite memories from college was when I worked as a nanny for a sophisticated, wealthy family in the North Berkeley hills. even though my part time job made it difficult to focus on my school work late at night, I developed a deep bond with the curious and intelligent 3 year old I cared for, Cecily. she was a curly haired, tiny girl with a strong will that refused to wear a jacket when it was cold and yelled directions at me when I would drive in an unfamiliar part of town.

after picking her up from her pre-school, we would often go to Monterey Market, an up-scale market where the produce seemed to be freshly picked from the farm and the ingredients seemed to taste better than if they were bought at Safeway. at Monterey market, the produce would take up half the store, and there was different varieties of the same produce: apples of every kind, all types of potatoes and yams, and an assortment of greens. this was where the intellectuals of Berkeley would shop and where Cecily and I would wonder the different aisles, sometimes shopping for her family, and sometimes just browsing on bored days. on special days, we would get a special chocolate appropriately named The Tea Room. our favorite chocolate bar was a black masala chai milk chocolate. we savored every piece of this chocolate with some earl grey tea flavored with whole milk and a generous helping of honey while sitting in the kitchen with the sun shining down and we watched glimpses of humming birds outside. we’d call this our tea time and imagined we were fancy ladies living in victorian England. I hold those memories close to my heart. for a short while, this girl gave me her love and I gave her mine, and this love gave me security and strength as I transitioned from college to a working professional. Though Cecily has grown up now, and she has long forgotten me, her family and I lost touch, those special memories at Monterey Market are ones I look back on fondly and hope to create those memories with my own daughter one day.

grocery stores have given me life and hope when my days are sad and my struggles seem insurmountable. they are a special place where possibilities seem endless and new discoveries are around the corner, and everything has a place and order. they are places where my little sister, Natalie, and I pick up special treats on bad days, and visiting the store gave us even a short amount of relief when I was fighting for my life after my brain injury. even though most people treat the grocery store as an everyday, mundane task, it’s one that’s magical for me, where life seems to be breathed back into me, and I become that awestruck immigrant kid again, stopping to stare at everything but also trying to keep up with my fast-moving, determined mom.

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