As I drove out to Kroger for my first few shifts, I was struck by the way the store’s building seemed totally enveloped by the surrounding mountains. Being from a relatively flat part of central Maryland how enormous they appeared, and how green, on the verge of autumn. They still impress me as my time here passes, but sometimes it’s like they’ve inexplicably receded as, almost daily, I drive up 460 and park in the designated employee lot and ignore them as I walk through the front doors.
Since moving to southwest Virginia for graduate school I’ve taken a job as a floral clerk at one of the largest Kroger grocery stores in the area. Upon accepting the offer I am vaguely ashamed that this seemed to be the only job I could find, but the florist who hired me, Vickie, is kind and warm, and there’s something about the situation I implicitly trust.. “I’ll be a mother to you while you’re here,” she promised almost immediately, and, “I’ll teach you everything you need to know.”
I’m still learning. As I stand next to her uselessly, she constructs funeral arrangements like towers, grounding them in heavy vases filled with floral foam soaked in water. She builds a tall framework with stems of leather-leaf fern, eucalyptus, and Italian ruscus. It looks like a big green shield. Then she adds the flowers stem by stem from an enormous bucket, and the arrangement grows and grows. “Is it enough?” she asks, each time. “Does it need more here, or here?” She is not satisfied until the arrangements are enormous, stunning, perfect.
When I don’t have hours in the floral department, I cut fruit for the produce department for extra money sometimes, making fruit trays and pre-sliced fajita vegetables, asparagus with lemon slices. Most often, I work in the produce prep room on Sundays. I cut pineapples using an industrial pineapple corer, a dangerous tool that reportedly can and has taken fingers off. After months of fruit cutting, I still approach the pineapple corer with great timidity. It is not only extremely sharp, but one must operate it using great force. Not known for my triceps, I usually have to stand on tiptoe and use my entire body weight to force the corer through the pineapple. When I do, the core of the pineapple pops out of the machine and hurtles into the sink below. As I do this an older man with a flat top and basset hound eyes washes lettuce two sinks down and makes indirect comments about how slowly I work.
One morning a woman comes to the floral counter to purchase balloon bouquets for her Easter tables. She tells me she has one main table for the meal, and then two smaller tables: I presume one for desserts, one for children. She asks for Easter mylar balloons to tie in with the plain latex balloons. “No bunnies,” she says, showing me a shrink wrapped package of eighteen pastel-flowered paper plates with faint purple crosses, the lines of the cross designating four corners: ham, potatoes, asparagus, and deviled eggs. She confesses to me that she’s worried that bunnies or other evidence of secular Easter will offend her mother-in-law, a minister’s wife. I’m familiar with this sort of thing. I grew up exposed to Christians who, when greeted with “Happy Holidays” by cashiers and passersby, respond “Merry Christmas” with a bitter snap in their voice that heavily suggests this is intended not as a wish, but a correction. They perceive a threat that secular traditions will overtake their holidays, so they lash out on Santa Claus and Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.
But, seemingly transcending the sacred and profane in the world of Kroger, there’s the commercial. Kroger shows no allegiance to any secular or Christian Easter traditions, selling stuffed bunnies holding balloons with crosses on them. I would know: I’m the one who tied the cross balloons onto the paws of the Easter bunnies. Like any other Sunday, Easter’s just a profitable day for Kroger, with customers rushing through the store between church and lunch in their nicest clothes, where other customers shop in the afternoon in their pajamas, pushing their carts slowly, tired on their only day off.
My own family used to embrace commercial Easter as wholeheartedly as Christian Easter, but something’s shifted over the years. Maybe, with small children, egg hunts and bunny photos at the mall were too fun to resist, or maybe my mother’s convictions grew more intense. Now, I can’t imagine my mother carefully making a bunny cake, drawing on a happy bunny face with icing pens.
I remember sidling up to my mother at the kitchen counter one night after dinner and asking her whether or not I could go to heaven. “Our whole family will go to heaven because your great-grandfather was a righteous man,” she said to me as she covered up pots and plates with Saran Wrap and stacked them in the fridge. She wasn’t yet the woman who led Bible studies and owned expensive kitchenware, who would have immediately keyed into the heresy in her words. This was an apocryphal time in our family’s history, I suppose, when we were less zealous, when our souls were in no apparent danger.
This was in the old house, when we lived in the suburbs of Baltimore in a town called Joppa, in one of the houses across the street from where I attended kindergarten. On Sundays, we went to the big church on Route 152 that everyone else we knew attended. At home, my brother and I played in the yard beneath the oak trees. I tried many times to eat acorns. My father cemented a patio outside the sliding door to the backyard, and we were warned many times not to fall on it and scrape our knees.
When I was a teenager, I encountered an old picture of my mother carrying me on her back outside that house, probably returning from the playground at our school across the street. Because my mother looked so entirely different in the photo than I could recall, I had to ask if it was truly her. “That was me once,” she said, seeming not to really recognize herself either. In this picture, she has the same curly hair and glasses (albeit both are much bigger than they are now), and she is beautiful in the same way that she is still beautiful, but her face looks so incredibly different—something about her expression. I am arrested by how young she looks, close to my age now.
My parents put on an egg hunt for my brother and me one Easter. I was five years old and my brother was two. My dad followed us around with an enormous video camcorder over his shoulder, as he frequently did in those times. In this particular video, I have sponge curls and I am wearing a rainbow windbreaker over my blue Easter dress. It is 1994, the last time in my life I can move faster than Cameron, my younger brother, and I hurry past him as he stumbles around the yard with his empty basket, grabbing every bright plastic egg I could see, and ignoring the pale fragile eggs. I understood that while plastic eggs are full of candy, hardboiled eggs are full of smelly egg, with rings of gray around the overcooked yolks. Depriving my brother of the “good eggs” might have been my first venial sin.
One egg, I missed. My dad records Cameron stumbling across it, practically on accident, and when he picks it up and feels something inside the egg shift in his hands, his face scrunches up and he slowly lifts the egg up to his ear and he shakes it. He just keeps shaking it. The audio on the cassette is bad: all you can really hear is wind, but beneath that wind, my father’s laughter.
“Beth,” my dad calls to my mother from behind the camera, as he zooms in on my overflowing basket of plastic eggs, “Look what she found.” I am standing on the patio, knowing I’ve done something wrong but trying to behave normally, as if I’m not about to get in trouble.
My mother swoops in to look at the basket, grabbing my shoulder and glaring at the camera, her way of asking my father to stop recording. Here the video cuts off for a second, and when the camera cuts on again my brother and I stand on our front stoop with our eggs, redistributed between our baskets while the camera was turned off.
I was seven when my parents told me the Easter bunny wasn’t real. They like to tell this story still, the way they remember seeing the gradual realization on my face, the way I broke their hearts when I next asked, “Does that mean there’s no magic in the world?”
We went to church every Sunday for as long as I could remember. Easter Sunday’s a relatively safe day to attend a church, at least at a church like mine growing up: because of the high attendance and the presence of many out-of-town visitors, no one is going to try out a new under-rehearsed song or put on a cheesy illustrative skit. There will be flowers, in abundance. Everyone will look nicer than usual, and people won’t hold you for long after the service to talk because of their lunch plans.
Since I started working here I haven’t attended church. It’s because I am scheduled to work every single Sunday, ostensibly, but it’s also because my practice of faith is on hiatus. This long pause is something I worry about often, something that I think about too much, that makes me grind my teeth in my sleep and wake up cold. On the actual day of Easter, though, I don’t really worry about it, mostly because I’m too exhausted to think. As I see customers float past in their Sunday dresses, I feel a pang of insecurity about my Kroger polo and faded, too-short black pants, covered in what I can only describe as pineapple debris. Rather than a sacred day, this just feels like every other Sunday in recent months. Because we’re short-staffed on holidays, today I work both jobs, in the floral department and cutting fruit, constantly removing and reattaching the hair net I feel ashamed of as I hurry back and forth between departments, washing my hands and re-gloving them twenty times. I core sixteen pineapples, which is actually fewer than usual. I unwrap seventy-five enormous hanging baskets of Boston ferns and arrange them on a set of wooden bleachers in the outdoor display at the front of the store. I wrap short-stemmed Dutch tulips in green tissue paper and tie them with bows covered in pastel, glittery eggs.
There’s a church across the street from work with a big sign draped on the side of their building; it reads, “WELCOME SHOPPERS.” On my breaks at work, I tend to sit in the parking lot and eat yogurt in my car. I stare at that church sometimes. I think it’s a Seventh Day Adventist church.
Vickie is a believer of some kind, I gather, though we only talk elliptically about what that means to her. “God brought you here to this Kroger for a reason,” she said to me once behind the floral counter, and I had no idea how to respond.
My mother recently sent me some new clothes for my birthday: prim outfits in expensive-looking fabrics. Thick-woven dresses with high necklines that modestly frame my face, silky skirts that fan away from my hips and fall far past the knee. The outfits, too large, hung off my anxious frame when I tried them on. At first I wondered where she imagined I would wear something so dressy and staid. It hit me that these are church clothes: nice things I could hypothetically wear on Sunday morning at some nice Southern church. I was moved. She was surely aware that I hadn’t been attending church, but in these gifts I felt her hope that I still might.
My relationship to the place of church often feels disparate from my own beliefs, though it might be just as fraught. I hear many others say that it is not God they feel disillusioned from, but church: that they didn’t like church much or they experienced pain and isolation there, that in some way the experience of trying to live life as part of a church community broke their hearts. I’m not sure that’s what happened to me because I wonder if they also crave church, miss it, the way I do. I want to go into a house of God and to finally understand what that is. I want to know the people who go there. I want to understand those people. I want to sit comfortably in the sanctuary and I want to experience, intimately, what they do: the presence of God.
Perpetually, I hope to quit this job and find another. I’ll have Sundays off, and maybe I’ll become a permissive, contemplative Episcopal—the kind of people I really like but have never really been able to emulate. When that time comes my faith will not be so tenuous, scattered, and broad; it will be comfortable and sure and untroubling.
But for now, this is just a reverie I experience between shifts. For now, I’ll be at the church of Kroger every Sunday morning:
where I roll in five to ten minutes late and no one judges me for it, parking my car and watching the sun bursting through the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains; where the produce manager brings me two hot, greasy hash browns from McDonald’s; where the people working at the cash registers say hello to me with only mild reservation as I walk by; where produce boys who remind me of my brother when he was my little brother ask me for my opinion on everything from hairstyles to politics; where the same tiny elderly man in a bright orange Virginia Tech hat asks me to find him eight green bananas in the back room, and I squeeze between the boxes and grab one bunch of bananas, six, and then I break two bananas off a second bunch—seven, eight—and bring it out to him, and he will give me a hug and say, “God bless you.”