Lessons Never Lost

“OMG!” That’s what I thought as I stood at the supermarket checkout counter. For a reason I can only attribute to a lesson never lost, I became aware of the usually robotic task of pulling my goods out of the cart and putting them on the conveyor belt. It wasn’t random product selection, I was re-living a lesson taught by my mother way back when.

Let me explain “way back when.” This was when a super market was just that a market that was “super” or “superior.” The larger store was beginning to steam roll the local corner market where one bought household staples, often on shelves that couldn’t be reached, items being gotten down by a guy wearing a white apron with a tool that had pincers at the end that grabbed the Wheaties or whatever when he squeezed the handle. They would mostly replace the vegetable store on the other corner and the meat market in the middle of the block. Latter on they’d make inroads on the bottom line of “notions” stores and hardware stores and eventually pharmacies. It was the dawn of the age of one stop shopping.

There was however something very old retained by these new stores because technology hadn’t caught up yet. That was the cash register. It is hard to describe something one doesn’t see anymore in every day life. It’s easier to to send the reader to “google it.” Yet there was something imposing about a real cash register. They were big, often brass, and shiny. They had keys like a typewriter (hopefully someone out there remembers those). The keys had numbers on them, numbers of the most common combinations were on one key: 25, 50, 1.00. But pretty much if something cost 78 cents, you hit a 78. If it cost 3.78 you hit 3.78. Now imagine doing that as the check out cashier for a customer with a fully loaded cart–or two! And now imagine it with 3,4, maybe five carts lined up. Add the tension of of the customers, 99% women, being near time to get dinner going and handling 2,3,4 or more children of varying sizes in tow. A slow-poke at the check out counter was a  killer of time and patience.

Thus cashiers had to have skills in those days. Bar code scanners? Nope. Electronic ways of finding a price of something or even what something was? Nope. Belts that “conveyed” the products towards the register? Nope. Plastic see through bags for fruits and vegetables? Nope. See my point yet? Hopefully that’s a “yup.” There were two particular skills the cashier, or better known in those days as “the check out girl,” had to have. One was knowing how to add and subtract because the cash register only told you the cost. Paying was a whole ‘nother operation. The customer handed the cashier the money, the register was opened and the cashier had to make change, as it was said. The other skill, also now handled by the computer, was remembering which items were not taxable, and sometimes which were on sale. 

To expedite the expedition, mom’s had to have the same skills. If pennies weren’t counted it was mom’s household budget that took the hit. If the cashier charged you tax on  non-taxable items, again mom was the loser. And in the ’50’s it wasn’t unusual for the husband to dole out the money. Having to ask for extra money was embarrassing. It didn’t mean you weren’t given enough to begin with. It meant you got an “F” in household finance. Oh yes, the house with the white picket fence around it looked great, but not everything going on inside of it was.

But I digress. A busy mom, and most were, needed time as much as household money. She was on a schedule as tight as a Swiss railroad. If she were smart she become part of the check out process. She knew what was on sale. She knew what was non-taxable. She knew the price per pound of everything in case a price sticker had fallen off. Unloading the cart was her job; often if a store had a check-out counter helper to do that she’d refuse the help. After all, it was her money up for grabs not his. In this case money trumped time, but not by much.

To organize this ordeal there was a “way” to shop for groceries. That “way” would produce a cart that had sale items together, non-taxables together, and then items of like use together. This not only insured financial protections but purposeful packing. Things came out of the bags, yes paper bags, in an order that made them quicker and easier to put away. Then the bags were folded and put away. You never could tell when a big, heavy weight bag would be needed for one thing or another. Maybe a school book cover. Maybe a Halloween mask. Maybe for kitchen scraps and other garbage.

As kids reached their pre-teens moms began to teach these skills. First it made the unloading of the cart faster. Secondly, not fore-seeing the dramatic and rapid changes coming in technology, if the child was a girl she’d need these skills to add to her arsenal of what would make her a good wife. For a boy, there was the “future job for teenage boys, supermarket helper, more commonly known at “bag boy.” If mom taught you all these skills you were a leg up on the candidate whose mom didn’t.

Going to the supermarket or working at one was not only a life skill, but it was a school skill as well. You bloody well could add and subtract and do it rapidly. The pressure in the store could make the pressure of a math test seem tame. To do that job you had to have game.

So there I was hovering over my cart. If frozen dinners were five for something I was putting all five together. Stuff I’d gotten on sale, they were grouped neatly on the belt. Non-taxables sheltered together. Then I noticed it. The woman at the “register” (read computer) was staring at me probably thinking I had some obsessive compulsive disorder. Maybe I did but that had nothing to do with my groceries. I was unloading my cart as mom had taught me–about 62 years ago.


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