American Dream – noun

: an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity
: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal

After a couple of weeks of light grocery shopping (I had three weeks of meals in the freezer after all), I went to Wal-Mart on Saturday with a big list, including some Valentine’s treats for Steve and the boys. I knew before I left the house that this trip would result in a long receipt with a big dollar amount at the bottom. I was prepared for what was about to happen.

But apparently the rest of the world wasn’t.

By the time I made it around the entire store — all the way from baby aspirin to romaine lettuce — I had to really put some muscle into it to push the heavy cart into the checkout aisle. There were two customers in front of me. A young woman with two young children had nearly finished and was paying the cashier, and an elderly man just in front of me was placing a few items on the conveyor. If he hadn’t needed the cashier to ring up a bag of salt to be picked up on the way out, he would have been finished before I even unloaded my produce.

As it were, I had unloaded the entire contents of my cart and was even holding onto a couple of items to put on the end when the cashier finished with the elderly man.

There I stood with my large haul of groceries when another man pulled up behind me with his cart. I was the kind of customer you didn’t want to be behind in a grocery line, but all of the other checkout lanes had multiple customers. I looked up at him sheepishly. “You know you’re in trouble when your groceries fill the entire conveyor,” I said, trying to make conversation.

“Yeah,” he replied, “and that’s going to be expensive.”

“You’re right,” I said, suddenly feeling guilty for my perceived overindulgence.

“Ah yes,” said the cashier in her Russian accent as the man in front of my rolled his cart way, “this is the American Dream: you can buy whatever you want.”

I felt even worse.

“Yeah, I … I mean, you’re right, it’s … ,” I struggled to respond. “We are thankful that we have these options. We don’t take it for granted.” As I pulled the cart around to load up the bags, I wondered if that was true.

As Victoria scanned my items and loaded them into tan plastic bags, we talked about my various purchases, I soon realized that her American Dream comment wasn’t just talking about the amount of what I was buying. She was also referring to the healthfulness of what I had chosen. At least half of the conveyor was filled with produce that had been shipped from throughout Central and North America: oranges, bananas, apples, blueberries, and red raspberries. Bags of celery, lettuce, onions, potatoes, and carrots. There was a container of cherry tomatoes, a large head of broccoli, and a package of red, yellow, and orange peppers. I also was buying fresh meat and ingredients like yeast and baking powder to make bread and biscuits.

Red raspberries American Dream

As she rang up each ingredient — including the unusual purchases of candy and soda since it was a holiday weekend — I realized that my purchases aren’t just unique in the world, they also are unique in this country. Not everyone in America is living our version of the American Dream.

“Eating healthy is more expensive than eating unhealthy, isn’t it?” I asked, rather rhetorically by that point in the conversation. Victoria had already declared her undying devotion to eggplant and grapefruit. And after complaining that her husband not only doesn’t like healthy foods but doesn’t even allow her to buy them, she even declared her devotion to me: “I should have married you instead of him,” she said laughing.

After she rang the last item and I saw the total, I let out a long whistle, the kind that says, “WOWSA” without uttering a word.

“I never knew how to whistle before,” Victoria said. “Maybe I should just buy a lot of groceries and then I’d be able to!”

“That is a lot,” I conceded as inserted my credit card into the reader and loaded up the last few bags into the card. “But it’s in our budget.”

We said our goodbyes, and I knew I’d see her again. This wasn’t the first time Victoria had rang up my groceries. But it was the first time she’d helped me see my weekly grocery shopping as an act of gratitude, though.

And to be honest, I’d wait in a very long checkout line for another dose of that perspective.

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Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.