Growing up with groceries: A personal essay

A winning submission from our 2nd annual Rising Awards chronicles growing up in a family-owned corner store

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When I walked down the aisles of my family’s grocery store, tears started to bubble up in my eyes. 

I got all choked up. These scratched, white, old metal aisles used to be so tall to me. Now, I could reach the top shelves with ease—I was overcome with a sort-of existential dread. 

When did I, and this store, get so old? When did these shelves get so small? When did these blue and white checkered floors get so dull? 

Mum says that her maternity leave ended when I was eight months old. However, unlike many other working mothers, she took me to work with her; which, I can only guess, was rather tiresome for her. 

She had a lot of work to do. Sometimes she assisted with sewing for the fabric store my family owns in addition to our more well-known (at least among the South Asian communities) grocery store. Sometimes she assisted with selling Bollywood movie VHS tapes, and sometimes she worked in the grocery store just beside the fabric store. Then, of course, there was her eight-month-old daughter to take care of. 

Back then, the stores were in their own individual spaces in the same plaza in Kitchener. Two self-contained box-shaped worlds with their own laws and players. Looking back, I really don’t understand how mum could juggle scurrying between these worlds with a baby on her hip. 

Probably to her relief, we moved into the much larger location on the end of the plaza and combined the different sections into one rather large space when I around eight-ish. This is the location we still operate in—the place where I nearly cried my heart out because I got sort-of tall. 

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Even now, mum goes back and forth between the sections, but at least now, she doesn’t have to constantly open and close doors (unless it’s to the cooler). 

Papa was, and is, the manager of this location. In the back, with brown cardboard boxes upon boxes of non-perishable foods, my papa and I would eat roti—Indian flat-bread—on top of milk crates. Funnily enough, I didn’t know that the crates were for milk for the longest time since we used them particularly everything: stocking, storing, sitting and step ladders. 

The moist roti and warm sabji—translated as vegetables in Punjabi and the more general (plus, in my opinion, more accurate) term for what people call “curry”—eaten during those days evoke a whole-body warmth when I think back; moments cherished deeply within my bones and my stomach. 

I was at those stores (throughout their location changes) mostly everyday with my parents until I started kindergarten, but even then, I was there for long stretches of time. Sometimes, I would do crafts (actually mum was the one who did them), other times, I would get bored and make my papa walk me down to the path where the manmade “river” near us stretched out for what seemed like endless kilometres. 

Most of my memories of the store in those days are in the spring or summer, with the setting sun beaming through our windows. Though, I did remember getting a chocolate Santa from one of the workers one winter day. 

Apart from walking outside, when I got bored, I would try to “help” my parents. It was always one of three activities I did to help: organizing the rolls of trimming, bangles, or making sure the shelves of our grocery store were tidy with everything in place. 

I was very particular about organizing everything and anything, a zeal that mum wishes I reserved for my own life, but that’s neither here nor there. 

Predictably, there came a time where I no longer wanted to stay at my parents’ side in the store. Somewhere along the years, my once talkative nature wilted into timidness. I was resistant to the world of my childhood self, the self that was happy and amused by moving around spices and seasonings into the right places. 

You could say elementary and middle school did a number on my mental wellbeing. 

Where the store was full of different people from all parts of the world—the Middle East, South Asia and the Caribbean in particular—with sweet words and colourful warmth, school was monochrome and cold. 

I was different. I smelled like cooked vegetables and spices. I ate “exotic” fruit, like Those fruits being guava and lychee (mangoes were OK for some reason), and thus was unliked by my peers. My hair was braided tightly and I wore modest clothes. 

And I was painfully shy. So painfully shy; a stark contrast to the lively girl re-shelving in her family’s store. 

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For a long time, I was reluctant to work at my parents’ store, like my brother and a few of my cousins did, because of my acquired social anxiety. 

That changed when I decided to work for the summer at the store after my personally disastrous first year of university. 

I wasn’t the only one who changed. Our store had now a newly built kitchen in the back for take-out and fresh samosas. A few times, I would cut vegetables back in the kitchen and I often worked as a handler of sweets and our new menu. We went through a lot of changes in how we handled and prepped food. 

We still had a fabric and grocery store; this was basically just added bonus to all of that. And we had been handling sweets for as long as I remember. 

I worked alongside my mother and I popped into the office to eat with my papa every so often when he was in. 

I was happy. 

But, when I was stacking the shelves and rearranging cans, packages of spices and the like, I found myself gazing past the top of the shelves. 

When did the shelves become so small? 

This store used to be my world: where I was happy, sad and angry throughout my younger years, where I tailed the workers, where I considered a particular customer to be my best friend and where the smells of spices and seasonings filled the haze of life.

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It was the fruit of my life, literally; most of my fruit came from our store. 

It’s easy for people to be unaware of how wonderful the places where they grocery shop can be; how the spices and seasonings liven up more than their meals; how much labour is put into stocking, into prepping food and cashiering, especially when all of it is manual and not scanned by barcode. 

I always forget the prices of our vegetables and fruits; they’re always changing. 

Sometimes the changes make our regulars grumble or out-right complain. A lot of times, the prices go up but it’s not so easy for a small business to have the same very cheap prices big brand stores have. It’s a constant struggle and I’ve seen how stressful it can be negotiating with suppliers. 

But, we’re still kicking.

This piece was a winning submissions from our 2nd annual Rising Awards - a scholarship competition for emerging writers.