For the past few weeks, I have had to stop at the supermarket nearly every evening on the way home from work. As any working mother knows, daily stops at the store are inefficient and symptomatic of severe disorganization -- right up there with running out of milk for your children or gasoline for the car.
During most of the past year, I had managed with two stops a week. The cupboard was rarely bare. I was organized. But at some point this summer, this all changed. Every evening, it seemed, I would arrive home to a chorus of anguished cries:
We were out of soft drinks.
We were out of bread.
We were out of butter.
We were out of chips, cookies, milk, cheese, chocolate, ice cream, cereal, doughnuts, laundry detergent, lunchmeat -- you name it. (Actually, that's not quite true: Nobody was clamoring that we were out of vegetables or fresh fruit.)
The refrigerator, filled on the weekend, was bare by midweek.
My shopping habits had not radically changed, but clearly something had radically changed the ecological balance of the household.
Being a reporter by trade, it did not take long to solve the mystery, particularly after I began watching the prime suspect's eating habits closely. Half a gallon of milk would disappear in a gulp.
Over the past few years, I have heard numerous stories about what happens when college students return home after spending a year in compounds that have rarely been celebrated for their civilized ambiance.
Thus, I was not particularly shocked to hear the equivalent of four live rock bands playing simultaneously from the college student's room shortly after he returned to civilization in mid-June. I'll admit to getting a little touchy about this when the music would begin at 11:30 at night, just as I was trying to go to sleep. But as the parent of any college student knows, they are rarely home at 11:30 at night, and if they are they are sound asleep, exhausted from the day's manual labor or the previous evening's carousing. Life is tough in the fast lane.
Nor was I particularly surprised to find that I was chronically running out of cash. Expeditions with his younger brother and sister to the movies and to the ice-cream parlor and to buy shoes were living proof of family togetherness, and what kind of mother wouldn't be happy to finance that? Things did get a little dicey, however, the day I walked through the cafeteria line at work and arrived at the cash register only to discover that there had been an early morning raid on my pocketbook which had left me with absolutely no cash.
Nor was I particularly surprised to find the laundry area servicing the equivalent of one dormitory floor, or shocked to find people sleeping on sofas in the morning, or to find that every time I picked up the phone someone was talking on the extension.
I was not ready, however, for the assault on the family food chain.
After one has been at the business of homemaking for a few years, such skills as marketing become mastered to the extent that one can get through a supermarket, list in hand, without having to think very much about what size can you need and how much you need of various products. You get used to shopping for a specific size family.
For a full three months after my son the college student departed, I was still shopping as though he were home. We had a lot of leftovers. A gallon of milk would last half the week. By Christmas, I was shopping for three. My food bill was down. He returned, and we promptly ran out of food. The next six months, I was back to shopping for three and the habit finally stuck. Any habit that reduces your food bill is easy to acquire.
The other evening he returned from a particularly hard day at work: 12 hours of cutting down trees, the last seven or eight of which were worked in the pouring rain. This kind of work may build character but it doesn't necessarily sweeten the disposition. His work clothes had to be washed. Minutes later he appeared in the kitchen announcing that we were out of detergent. I told him I'd discovered that the night before when I tried to wash a dress. We sat down at the dinner table. We were out of ketchup.
"What's going on around here?" he exclaimed. "We're out of soap. We're out of ketchup. We never have anything to drink. Things are falling apart!"
I thought of explaining about ecological balances between supplies of food and territorial inhabitants, and I thought of telling him about marketing habits among American homemakers, but that didn't seem the right time. "I'll go to the store tomorrow," I said.
Anyway, we needed milk.