When I was a little girl in the fabulous mid-1990s, one of my most dreaded summer vacation activities was grocery shopping with my mom. Too young to stay home by myself and gorge on daytime Nickelodeon classics, my sister and I would load ourselves into the family minivan and head into town to our bustling metropolis’s only grocery store.
The reason I disliked this activity so much wasn’t because it was a chore, per se, but because it was a chore that would take us several hours. It would take us several hours because my mom would see so many friends and acquaintances, and from what I can remember she would stop to talk to each one. (As a family of four, when your town consists of only 1,396 other people there is nowhere to hide.) But you don’t really even have to like these people; convention says you have to talk to them anyway. Such is the reality of the small-town retail outlet.
Rest assured, though, that on the rare days my mom didn’t see anyone she outright knew, she would quickly make new friends. People would need to be consulted by the meat freezers, and comments would need to be made on the week’s ice-cream sale.
Once we’d get to the parking lot, I knew we were still not safe. Sometimes familiar faces would be coming as we were going, and greetings would need to be exchanged.
I can recall one particular afternoon when we had loaded the groceries into the car and it looked like we were going to make a clean break. Not so. My mom spotted the mother of two girls that took the same school bus as me, and one of them flagged the other down so they could “shoot the breeze” (as they say in the country).
While our mothers were catching up on mother-type things, I was well into my usual ritual of trying to get my peers to like me by way of giving them food. I was just digging into a box of pink and orange Nerds, and offered a small handful to Leah, one of my bus mates. Leah thanked me with a smile, and then nonchalantly dumped her handful of Nerds onto the asphalt.
“Oops,” she said. “Can I have some more?”
I poured a few more Nerds into her palm. Looking me straight in the eyes, she tossed them onto the ground again.
“Oh darn. Can I have some more?”
I don’t want to think about how many times this charade occurred before I ran out of Nerds and dignity. And our moms were still busy shooting that humid summer breeze. It was hot, I was confused as to why my Nerd-sharing failed to earn me a new friend, and I was probably missing a great Boy Meets World re-run on TV. It was the worst.
This episode, which is etched forever in my memory bank, hinged on one critical quality of my mother’s – one critical quality that has likely sparked every conversation she has ever taken part in. My mom, Rosemary, is a certified question-asker.
Over the years I have been able to witness my mom putting her question-asking prowess to good use. I have noticed that she asks questions of just about everyone: big shots, not-so-big shots, friendly people, not-so-friendly people. I think my mom could enjoy a conversation with an apprenticing plumber as much as she could enjoy a conversation with an Oscar-winning actor. She doesn’t have a standard set of questions, per se, but nonetheless the general lists can be exhaustive. All of the information she gleans from these conversations is considered valuable, and no topics are off limits. For better or for worse, she is a natural inquirer, and I think it is her single most defining character trait.
With several thousand kilometres between us now, I no longer go grocery shopping with my mom on a regular basis and actually quite enjoy the anonymity of big-city life. For me, a recovering small-town girl, life in Calgary is positively serene, not to mention efficient. Given a choice, I prefer to not talk to anyone in a grocery store, mall, or park. As such, I really get things done at an impressive rate. I will even resist conversation to the point of being a snob.* One time I even took a serious detour on my commute to work to avoid speaking to a colleague before business hours. I am not ashamed of this. Please be happy for me.
When my family was in town over this past long weekend, I felt so many familiar feelings throughout our touristy adventures. Please rest assured that my mom’s curiosity has not diminished with time. Nor is it restricted to her home province.
On the holiday Monday my mom, dad and I went for a walk in one of Calgary’s biggest parks. This park is so big and hilly that dad and I didn’t want to lose mom for fear we’d never find her again. This meant stopping every 20 metres so she could take photos, and I was perfectly okay with this arrangement until she found someone to talk to. This middle-aged man with a pail strapped around his neck was lurking near some bushes with his bike, and while I felt the need to press on as quickly as possible my mom somehow didn’t agree.
I watched from a short distance – unable to hear their conversation – as my mom no doubt quizzed this man on his outdoor activities. I tapped my toe, checked the time every two minutes, and grew wary as I noticed the storm clouds quickly headed in our direction.
Rosemary continued to interview the stranger.
Eventually I hit the zenith of my impatience and waved at her, pointing at the angry clouds. She waved me on as if to say, “Oh go ahead, but you’re missing out. You’re seriously missing out on this great conversation and I am sad for you.”
When she finally caught up with us, she relayed all of the data she had collected from her human research subject. This man was collecting Saskatoon berries (hence the neck bucket) and those berries would probably make good jam. Perhaps they would also make good pies? His sister is a Sills from the town of Pembroke in Ontario, but it was unclear if the man is also a Sills. Given that our family is also from Pembroke, perhaps we know some of the same countryfolk. And so on. As we hopped into the rental car it started to pour rain. For once we made a clean break.
Watching the rain on the windshield, I wanted to be annoyed that she’d held up a perfectly good walk. What good was this stranger’s information to me? I might have thought. But no. See, when you’re bored at the grocery store and your mom is taking forever and a day to get through the checkout, it’s easy to think that she’s bothering whoever she’s talking to. A long time has passed since my Nickelodeon days, and now I know better than to get my feathers ruffled over my mom’s extracurricular conversations. Instead, I can now see them for what they are: day-brighteners.
As an adult I know that simply isn’t true. People love my mom. They flipping love her. She makes them feel important because she’s interested in information that others might not care about. She makes their days better because her interviews turn them into celebrities, and she’s a genuine hoot (once again, here is another charming rural expression). I feel like if I didn’t know my mom and she happened to strike up a conversation with me in the grocery store, I wouldn’t be able to resist her quirky small-town ways. I would probably tell my friends about her.
Conversations with strangers also brighten my mom’s day. I have never seen anyone but my mom get such a kick out of these kinds of brief encounters. She talks about strangers’ lives the same way I talk about food or books or my bulldog. And I need to be okay with that. After all, one of the things I know about love is that you need to respect the things your loved ones live for, even if you don’t understand them. My mom’s curiosity makes her thrive on the grocery store-style banter of my youth. Thankfully, in many ways I can now see how she’s more amusing than daytime cartoons and even sweeter than a box of orange and pink Nerds.
* Unless you have a cute dog. Owners of cute Calgary dogs, look out. I’m probably going to talk to you.