Last night, as I strolled through the Aldi near my work, I had a strange moment of clarity, wherein I saw my life as a sequence of grocery stores.  I felt, in that revelatory moment, something like an invertebrate, or perhaps a toad, the kind of creature whose life cycle one learns about in grade school.  Only, every stage of my life cycle—instead of encompassing my body in some vaguely unfortunate sac of fluids or string—took place within a particular kind of grocery store.

When I was very young—so young that my memories of the time are pre-literate—there was a grocery store near my house called Piggly Wiggly.  Of the stores in the area, it was the nearest to our house, and my older brother, Dennis, used to call it “Piggawy Wiggawy”: these were the two main reasons my mother shopped there.  When I was born, my mother stayed at home with her two youngest children, and she would sometimes take us shopping with her on weekday mornings.  She would deposit me in the front of a cart while Dennis would retrieve his own little, child-sized cart.  My mother would entrust Dennis with five pennies, and every time he hit her ankles with the front of his cart, she would take one away.  How many pennies he had at the end of the shopping trip was how many candies he got to buy, or how many quarters he got to use in the toy machines at the front of the store.  I don’t remember the reward: he didn’t get it very often.

Piggly Wiggly closed about the time that I started school, so that when a Dominick’s took its place in that strip mall, I did not spend as much time there and considered it a usurper to the kinder, more magical store of my extremer youth.  This changing of the Paper-Or-Plastic guard was my first experience of loss, and also my first experience of replacement.  Soon hereafter I would lose my first minivan, and eventually a guinea pig, and both blows were somewhat softened by this inaugural ordeal.

In my hometown, there were three nearby grocery stores: the aforementioned Dominick’s, a Jewel down by the train station, and another Jewel by the big Catholic church.  When I was in elementary school, there were only about 100 children in my grade, and our families all shopped at the Dominick’s.  When I moved to the junior high, there were somewhere around 300 to 400 students in my grade.  While many still shopped at the Dominick’s, we now had contingents from both the Jewels as well.  I remember, in seventh grade, I had a crush on a boy whose mother shopped at the Catholic-Church Jewel.  I would regularly ask my mother if we could go there for our now-weekend trips, but I never once saw that boy there. Grocery stores, it seems, are no place for clandestine love.

Once I reached high school, my class size neared 800 students whose families shopped at stores as of yet uncharted in my mind’s map of Chicagoland.  That no longer mattered, however: our high school was only two or three blocks down the hill from my childhood nemesis, the Dominick’s.  On nice days in the spring, my friends and I would walk up that hill, go into that Dominick’s, buy two or three cartons of the cheapest ice cream, as well as a box of plastic spoons, and we’d eat it at the tables in the “café area” until we were asked to leave because of our youthful exuberance.  Then we’d stroll around the strip, maybe partake in a Sub So Fast We Freaked from Jimmy Johns, or perhaps play an imaginative game of “Would You Date the Lead Character from This Movie?” in the Blockbuster, or even stroll aimlessly around the Walgreens (and later, its own unkind usurper, True Value, which, despite all my loyalty, still managed to win me over with its popcorn machine).

Of course, I eventually moved to Michigan, where Meijer reigns supreme.  And what greater grocery store is there in this universe, I ask you?  Its hours of operation: endless.  Its selection of salty snacks: both wide and economical.  Its eagerness to provide you with everything your heart could desire, from beta fish for your floor’s lobby, to large dispensers of road-salt for your excessively steep off-campus driveway: constant as the ever-turning spheres.  I dabbled in other groceries while I lived in Grand Rapids.  Family Fare, Family Dollar, even Aldi; none won my heart the way that Meijer, with its consistently convenient locations, ever did.

And then I moved to Pittsburgh.  Pennsylvania had no Meijer to guide my late-night snacking needs, no Dominick’s to lend me friendship or ice cream.  No, only the barren wasteland of Giant Eagle—all the locations have different aisle arrangements and different prices; their hours, while long, are finite; their wine and booze selection is nullified by law.  In much the same way that the loss of Piggly Wiggly taught me my first lesson of change, the pain of having to acclimatize myself to the strange inner workings of Giant Eagle taught me my first lesson of migration: don’t seek to replace the things that you had.  Instead, seek to discover completely new things—Giant Eagle sells loose-leaf tea and the Target down the street has the Little Smokies I like.

The Aldi near my work taught me my second lesson of migration: use new contexts to rediscover old friends you once neglected.  As I said, I had this epiphany in that Aldi, strolling around with my cloth bags and my quarter in my cart, picking up frozen pizza and waffles just to make it through the night.  I realize that, in the shadow of the almighty Meijer, Aldi paled in comparison.  So small, with such questionable meat selection, I hid under the protective wings of brand names and self-check-outs.  But once stripped of my comfort and forced into stores completely unknown, the somewhat-familiar Aldi welcomed me with its frighteningly low prices and its tiny selection, both of which make it so easy to choose what you want from what is provided.

The Dominick’s near my parent’s house has closed.  The Jewels are still there, though they have all changed personality since the “Everyman’s Whole Foods,” Mariano’s, has moved into town near the police station.  More loss.  More change.  More adaptation.  More things to learn as I make my way through life and geography.  Because one constant thing I need to survive, no matter where I live or whom I live with, is food.  And one inconstant thing on which I will always rely, wherever I go, is the place that will sell it to me.


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    Piggly Wiggly, Albertsons, Safeway, the Jewel, Smith’s, Harris Teeter, the Jewel again, Dominick’s, Whole Foods, Meijer, D&W, Nourish, and currently: Aldi.

    That’s my list. I still miss Whole Foods.

  2. Abby Zwart

    I was stunned as a fourth or fifth grader to discover that there were grocery stores other than Meijer. STUNNED. I’ll never betray that 24-hour mecca of goodness.

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    You must make a pilgrimage to your nearest Wegmans.

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    I share your pain related to Giant Eagle (although, if yours has loose leaf tea I think must be cooler than mine)! Lived in Western PA for three years and oh, how it made me miss Meijer!


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