Voices on Addiction: Motherless in Albertsons


“To cook is to love again.” – Jim Harrison

One week before Thanksgiving, I try not to think about my mother’s recent death as I navigate an unfamiliar grocery store. I hunt for the Sprite my thirteen-year-old son requested and the peppermint bark my ten-year-old daughter wants for a holiday candy dish—two indulgences I can’t find at our usual stores. My solo-parent life runs on routine: carpools, work shifts, meals, bedtimes, weekdays, weekends, and seasons. This evening, I have hit an errand twofer at Albertsons, where I can pick up my son’s prescription and grab a few items on one of my many lists.

I began downloading the Albertsons discount app as I searched for ricotta, heavy whipping cream, and pumpkin pie spice. Discount cards are outdated—relict— and grocers will only grant you sale prices in trade for your name, phone number, and home address. I keep punching the app, hoping it will download on only two bars of reception, as I wander towards the pharmacy sign at the back of the store.

We returned from Indiana a week ago. There, I watched my mother expire in a hospice center due to complications from alcohol use disorder. I’d been cooking all the comfort foods since: borscht, pumpkin bread, salsa chicken, beef stew, cookie bars, granola, and—on the menu that night— goat cheese lasagna.

The Albertsons app finally downloads, and I pause to enter my information.

My mother, a teen parent, had never been much of a cook, though I remembered well her signature dishes, which she mastered in home economics class: tuna noodle casserole with potato chips on top, scalloped potatoes from the box, deviled eggs, and lasagna. (My goat cheese lasagna is a version of hers, which is the recipe you’ll find on any pasta jar.) I’m not so much a chef as I am a dependable recipe reader—what a musician ex-beau of mine would have called a re-creator, as opposed to a creator. I choose a recipe and try to recreate it. I don’t get fancy. I don’t wander out on culinary limbs and dangle there because, in the kitchen, I have nothing to prove but adequacy. No spouse to impress. Just me and the kids, who I knew from the get would not touch my borscht.

We’d starved my mother to death. It’s a story I don’t tell when people ask, though I run ruts around it in my head, replaying the logic as if checking a math proof. In the end there was only this choice: put her in a nursing home with an IV and feeding tube and let her die slowly or send her to hospice with no IV or feeding tube and let her die quickly. We chose the latter, though it was not as fast has we’d hoped. She lasted eleven days without water. She’d already gone weeks without food. How can a body do that, my dad and I kept asking. She’s still filling up her catheter bag.

There may have been jokes about all the Chardonnay stored in her hollow leg. There may have been jokes about liquid being her natural state. I may have whispered into her ear that there was a pack of orphaned pugs and an open bar in The Light.

At the pick-up window, the pharmacist explains my son’s medication cycle: four meds, one to be taken for two weeks straight, one to be taken the first week, and two for only the last two weeks. Got it? No, but I will.

Just before my mother entered the hospital, my son had a biopsy to confirm celiac disease, in which they also discovered a gut bacterium. These meds will kill the bacteria.

Celiac, the doctor said, is an autoimmune disease. Gluten is the trigger that turns the body against itself, to destroy itself; what booze is to alcohol use disorder, what loss is to grief. I am not sick with death. I am sick with grief, triggered by my mother’s death, in turn triggered by Chardonnay.

While explaining the relationship between gluten and celiac to my son, the doctor said, That means no beer for you! For the first time in my life, I considered he might one day want to drink beer, which could be, for him, a dual trigger (celiac and alcohol use disorder). Could two negatives equal a positive, granting him immunity to our family history of addiction? Or would the two act together, amplifying each other—some kind of genetic double-whammy?

In the meat aisle, I ponder the gluten content of turkey bacon then browse on, wondering if gluten-free lasagna noodles would be in the pasta aisle or in one of those sequestered health food sections, which is where I eventually find them. I head toward the checkout, grabbing pudding cups on the way, and stand in line behind a grownup kid built like my kid—long and lean with trousers rolled at the ankles to show off colorful socks; short, mussed hair; and a mechanic’s jacket that has never touched motor oil. My mom would have labeled him a young Ethan Hawke. My mother, in this same line, would have grabbed a tabloid or two. She was a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood trivia dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. She’d fallen off in later years, starting around the Paris Hilton era. I don’t even know what these people are famous for, she’d say, pointing out a Kardashian and looking to me for an answer.

While waiting in line, I poke around on the app, worrying I’m expected to find a coupon for each item I’ve selected to get the discount. If so, what will I do in the check-out aisle the moment I realize this? Will I pay retail or walk away? I’ve always wanted to do the latter but, in the face of making others uncomfortable, have always chosen the former. Pay. Smile. Be nice.

Ethan Hawke seems bouncy, wound up. As I transfer my items from basket to conveyor belt, I notice the six-pack in his grocery lot. He’s pushing nineteen, tops.

But I have homemade mac-n-cheese on the brain, with roasted broccoli and garlic. Over the weekend, butter chicken with edamame on the side. I want to cook all the things. To bury myself in those smells and not come out again until I can answer the question, How are you doing? The question tunes my brain to television static. How am I doing? I have no idea. I have only a grocery list and a deep need to feed.

The cashier greets Ethan Hawke, and I listen as she talks to him about the discount app, which he doesn’t have, so I can’t preview how it works to make any last-minute adjustments. Then she asks him—and it floors me, how she simply asks him—

“What’s your birthday, hon?”

He names a date that makes him barely twenty-one. 1999: the year my ex-husband and I married, a year in which my brother and mother were still alive and drinking.

The cashier scans the sixer, and the kid smiles too big, making small talk.

I hear my mother say, He’s not so much a young Hawke as he is an Eddie Haskell—the good-looking neighbor kid from Leave It to Beaver who masked his shiftiness with car-salesman charm. She’s right. When I was not yet twenty-one, I, too, would have reveled in my victory. But at my age, he is my son, and the cashier is negligent—selling him an illegal trigger like that. I’m wondering if I can be nice about this when she smiles and greets me with, “Hi, hon.”

She checks my items through, scans the discount app on my phone, hits “total,” and dollars deduct from my bill.

“You saved $9.57,” she says, and I relax. My bank account is in the double-digits after a month of unpaid leave and the expense of three last-minute plane tickets. I couldn’t afford to lose again.

The woman, I realize, is about my mother’s age, mid-sixties, with a similar graying pixie haircut, but skinny like me. In her teeth, tendons, and movements, I sense a hard past. Drugs. An insecurity about being here—an Albertsons employee—as if someone might ask her to leave at any moment. She’s been hit with the people-pleasing reflex harder than me, even.

As she bags my groceries, Shelly (so her name tag reads) says, apropos of nothing, “It’s my daughter’s birthday today. She’s forty-five.”

“I’m forty-five,” I say. “My birthday was last month. I spent it in hospice, with my mother.” She died one week after my birthday, with only me by her side. She’d ushered me into the world in 1974 and I’d ushered her out. I can’t say if I miss her or not. I can only say that since she’s passed, life has felt like a forest after a giant tree falls, leaving a gap in the canopy.

Shelly nods and smiles. I don’t have to tell her the story of my mother’s death. She understands what makes hospice end. “My daughter was adopted,” she says. “I didn’t meet her until she was thirty-one.”

An employee drops a “closed” sign on the conveyor belt, and Shelly flips off her lane light. She tells me how she tracked her daughter down, how they visited several times when they both lived in Michigan.

I ask if they’re still in touch.

“Oh, no,” Shelly says. “I last saw her in 2004. She got divorced, moved to Florida.” She leans in, as if to share a secret. “But I’ve been thinking of her today. All day.”

“Happy birth-a-versary,” I say. It’s something we used to say in the mama groups I’d been part of when my kids were babies—too young to understand the reason for a cake with a candle.

Shelly likes that phrase. Repeats it once, thanks me twice, and we stand there a heartbeat longer: a daughterless mother and a motherless daughter united in the checkout lane.

I grab my grocery bag and sling it over my shoulder, ready to go cook for my kids. For myself. To keep us nourished, alive, and connected the best way I know how.


Rumpus original art by Cassie Osvatics 


Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.

Melissa Stephenson’s writing has appeared in various publications, including the Washington Post, Waxwing, Ms. Magazine, and ZZYZYVA. Her memoir, Driven, was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018. It was longlisted for the Chautauqua Book Prize and won the Indiana Emerging Author Award. Though born and raised in Indiana, she now lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids. More from this author →