It is the day after Thanksgiving, and the masses descend upon the local retail outlets like water from a burst dam, flowing like lemmings through the aisles in a pre-Christmas frenzy. However, one woman in a lonely corner of the grocery store is not there to shop. She waits patiently at the Returns counter with a turkey, or at least what’s left of it after her husband and seven kids had attacked it twelve hours earlier. The skeletal remains were easy to slip into the small plastic bag—even the wishbone had long since been taken out and snapped.
“It went bad,” this woman says to the lady behind the counter, sliding the carcass across the counter. Only a pro walks into a store and demands her money back on a turkey without any meat left on it. Janet Walsh is a pro.
My mom understood the craftiness one must adopt when trying to feed a family of nine each day. The family checkbook was packed like a musket with coupons skinned from local newspapers. Trips to the grocery store were military operations as seven kids invaded the unsuspecting stores offering samples on Saturday afternoons—who needs lunch when you can wolf down eight tiny slices of pepperoni pizza and wash it down with a thimbleful of the newest Coke? Our family did not merely buy in bulk; we stocked up as if winter was coming to Valley Forge. Each grocery trip ended with a game of culinary Tetris, where we’d stuff three separate freezers and two refrigerators with surgical precision. There was no rummaging through the fridge in my family; asked what was for dinner that night, my mom’s answer was, “Whatever’s up front.”
It was not uncommon for a loaf of bread to lie frozen in state like Vladimir Lenin for up to a year before it was discovered in the back of the freezer. She’d thaw it like the wooly mammoth on those National Geographic specials, using a hair dryer to separate a few pieces for school lunches. These clay pigeons with peanut butter and jelly slathered all over them sat in our lunch pails like a muttered apology, still frozen by the time our class had lunch.
“It keeps the sandwich fresh,” she’d say as we showed her our chipped teeth.
What the poor lady working at the Returns counter that day couldn’t know was that my family lived on food that had long since passed its expiration date. She viewed the freezer as a time machine, cryogenically preserving batteries, cheeses, cold medicines, and milk that would make the folks at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not take notice. In fact, there were three types of milk in or refrigerator: the “good” milk (within a week of its expiration date), “mixing” milk (older, used on cereal or in recipes), and “sour” milk, which would only be so designated when something inside it tried to bite you.
“The date is only a suggestion,” my mom would say whenever we brought it up. “They just want you to buy more.”
Local shopkeepers were talked into 10% discounts for the privilege of clothing her family.
“I have a carload full of customers in this family: growing children who like to buy new clothes!”
They agreed to the discounts, never realizing that this woman put clothes into a rotation that would be the envy of the New York Yankees. Each outfit bought for my oldest brother and sister filtered its way down to the youngest in a kind of corduroy waterfall, and all our class pictures looked as if we’d just pasted a new head on last year’s set. Being the youngest boy, I was always ten years behind the fashion, a Fonzie t-shirt in a sea of Gap mock turtlenecks. You could pick a Walsh kid out of a crowd because of our awkward Frankenstein gait, a result of my mom’s decision to sew massive patches on the insides of our pants and shirts to make sure they’d last to the next sibling. Where most kids wore clothes, we wore armor of reinforced nylon and denim that restricted our range of motion to that of the Tin Man.
“You just have to work them in a bit, like your baseball mitt,” she’d say.
As we grew older and more conscious of our fashion maladies, she picked up toddler Izod shirts or tattered Garanimals attire at consignment shops and sewed the telltale lizard onto the discount shirts she’d bought at K-Mart. “That’s strange,” my friends would say, “I always thought the alligator was on the other side!”
Growing up with my mom, one learned that opened bags of candy on store shelves were considered “samples,” and that any expensive item mistakenly placed in a discount section must now be sold at the discounted price. Four-dollar wine became vintage when poured into a different bottle. There was so much bread in the meatloaf that we didn’t know whether it should serve as the inside or the outside of the leftover meatloaf sandwiches. Clothes could be “rented” from local stores for special occasions and returned the very next day as long as you pinned the tags to the inside sleeve and kept the crease. Armed with a receipt and the original bag, there was nothing you couldn’t return.
Her ability to make the most out of little is surpassed only by her incredible ability to make her family feel loved. She never missed an opportunity to tell us how much she loved us, even during times we’d given her little reason to. She made prom dresses and dozens of Halloween costumes from scratch even as we complained that everyone else’s mom bought them new ones. In an age before carpooling, she drove seven kids to tennis matches, swim practice, track meets, ping-pong clubs, soccer practice and extra help after school. She made midnight calls with a cold washcloth and Vicks Vap-O-Rub when we were sick and showed up to every banquet even if you only got the “Participant” ribbon.
How do you follow an act like this? I’ll thank her the only way I know how: I’ll allow my kids to use up all my gas when they borrow the car. I’ll remind them of the high holy days and forgive them when they forget the holiest day of all: my birthday. Most importantly, I’ll teach them about the way life should be lived. They’ll learn about laughter because they’ll grow up listening to a lifetime of stories around the kitchen table. They’ll learn about the importance of family because they will know that your family is the one place in your heart that is always open. They will learn about love because their grandparents gave it unconditionally.
And I’ll wait in line at the grocery store Returns counter with a half-eaten holiday turkey in the original bag, receipt in hand, and wonder how the heck she ever managed to pull this off.