Until Mother learned to drive, she had to buy groceries at the small neighborhood store just down the road. Daddy also bought gasoline there, running up a monthly tab which they theoretically paid once a week. Naturally, over time, the grocery bill got out of control and Mr. Dennis got unhappy. In desperation, they had to borrow from the credit union to pay off their bill. By this time, Mother had learned to drive and wanted to shop at a supermarket in Springhill. After a few fights, Daddy finally agreed, but only if she kept her groceries to twelve dollars a week. Remember, they were having to repay the gigantic loan they’d made to pay off their grocery bill. For quite a while she managed on twelve, then seventeen, then from my first memories in the late fifties, she spent twenty-five dollars a week.
Trying to feed a family of seven on twenty-five dollars a week must have been a real challenge. I know if she could have somehow managed on nineteen or twenty-three she would have. My brother ate like a lumberjack from the time he was eleven or twelve years old. He wanted to drink his milk from a quart jar, but Mother put her foot down about that. She poured his in a regular glass, so everybody got a share before he was back for more. Of course, the little girls drank from small glasses. And, oh yes, there was plenty of reason to cry over spilt milk at our house. Even if things were going well, Daddy erupted in a fury at spilt milk or a broken dish, snatching the offending kid up by one arm while he pulled his belt off with the other. I’ll never forget the sound of that “pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop” as it snapped past all those belt loops, though that was considerably more pleasant than the popping it made on my legs. I so often wished I were the Daddy and he was the kid for just a few minutes.
Enough whining. In summer, Mother had to take us all with her grocery shopping, until we got old enough to stay home, babysit, clean the house, and fight the day away. Of course, we knew we’d get in trouble for inflicting an injury great enough to require stitches or a cast, so we exercised caution. Kids were a lot easier come by than money for a doctor. We alternated our alliances as the day dragged on. Sometimes I teamed up with Phyllis against Billy, sometimes I fought with him against her. We each waged our own wars against each other, just to make sure no one was left out. Eventually, worn out from all that fighting, we’d get our work done, taking plenty of breaks for minor fights.
Mother had her shopping and budgeting down to a science. The first stop was Winham’s Grocery Store in Sarepta, where she’d check the specials posted on butcher paper on the windows, planning to come back by there after she got the specials at the other stores. Besides, Winham’s gave Gold Bond Trading Stamps which weren’t as good as Plaid Stamps or S & H Green Stamps. She counted on those for Christmas gifts and that had to be worked into the equation.
Onward to Piggly Wiggly to check their specials, also posted in the window. The S&H Green Stamp store was housed in the same building, a very tempting set-up. To cash in Gold Bond or Plaid Stamps, one had to drive all the way to Shreveport, a much-dreaded prospect. If the prices were close to the same, Piggly Wiggly got her money. A & P was where she did the majority of her shopping, since over-all their prices were the best.
The only time I ever saw Mother drink Coca-Cola was while she was shopping, allowing herself that one luxury. We got a box of Animal Crackers or Cracker Jack to eat during shopping, saving the empty box to be rung up with the rest of the groceries. She’d snatch up Sunnyfield Cornflakes and oatmeal instead of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes or Sugar Smacks, and all the Ann Page products she could find, since they were the best buy. Vegetables were ten cans for a dollar, and she loaded that buggy up! I always swore I’d buy Del Monte or Birdseye when I got grown, but I don’t. Naturally, we got store brand salad dressing, mustard, ketchup, though we did get Blackburn Syrup, probably because there was no store brand syrup. Our buggy load compared poorly to the lucky kids whose mother piled their buggies high with fancy, sugary cereals, prize included, cookies, and cokes. (All soft drinks were cokes.) I wished I could drape a sheet over all the awful (wholesome) stuff she bought. Once that buggy was full, she’d parked it near the register and started on the second. I can remember till today what she bought: twenty-five pounds of self-rising flour, ten pounds of sugar, ten pounds of meal, three pounds of shortening, ten pounds of dried pinto beans, all of these store-brand of course, three pounds of Eight O’Clock Coffee, medium-roast, eggs if the chickens weren’t laying and if the cow had gone dry, a three pound box of powdered milk and a couple of pounds of margarine. White bread was three loaves for a dollar, a necessity saved for Daddy’s lunch, since she made biscuits or cornbread for every meal. On rare occasions, she had to pick up extras like baking powder, cocoa, salt, baking soda, matches, and Lipton’s loose tea. (It went further.) Of course, toilet paper, laundry detergent and bleach came from wherever they were on special. If she’d spent too much, washing powder had to double as scouring powder and dish detergent. Paper towels and napkins were seldom seen at our house, due to their extreme cost. Every week, she tried to work in one luxury item like clothes pins, matches, foil, iron-on patches, or God forbid, a home permanent! For us, she picked up packets of powdered drink mix, sometimes Kool-Aid brand at ten packets for a dollar. Finally, she went by the meat aisle, picking up whatever she couldn’t get on special somewhere else. We ate mostly chicken, some bought whole, and packages of backs, necks, and wings to be made into chicken and dumplings. That was long before people realized wings were good. Whole chicken cost twenty-nine cents a pound. Chicken parts were much cheaper. Last of all, she went by the produce section for twenty-five pounds of potatoes, cabbages, carrots, onions, and turnips, for ten pounds each of apples and oranges, or whatever produce or fruit was in season. Fruit and meat often came from Piggly Wiggly or Winham’s.
Hitting Piggly Wiggly for their specials once she’d done her major shopping, she scooped up the specials and the Green Stamps. Eventually, she might even get to Winham’s if their specials were too good to resist. Pickles, jams or jellies were homemade. Peanut butter and crackers sometimes made it to our house, if things went well.
For a while, Barrett’s Grocery in Cullen put whole chickens on special for twenty-five cents a pound. Mother went by several times and purchased just his chickens, till he told her people who were coming in just for chicken were putting him out of business. She went easy on him after that. Late in the afternoon, she would roll in home with her car stuffed with groceries. It seemed like she might have twenty-five bags, though that may be an exaggeration. We’d lug in countless bags, then some us of put groceries away while somebody else started the quickest meal possible. We were always ravenous since our budget didn’t stretch to include lunch in town on grocery day. Sometimes when Mother was feeling flush, she would spring for a bag of chips or cookies, but most of the time, we had to wait till we got home.
We learned early and well not to badger Mother for stuff in the grocery store, understanding we’d had our treat of Cracker Jack or Animal Crackers as we shopped. Most of the time, all it took was a stern look to settle us down. Should we really get out of line, Mother would fix us with a steely stare and say, “Don’t start! Just don’t you start!”
A couple of times, I was foolish enough to start, learning another terrifying phrase. “I’ll take care of you when we get home!” That shut me up immediately, knowing just what kind of tender care was waiting for me. I had crossed the line!