To Costco, or Not to Costco

The last time I drove my eighty-year-old mother to her neighborhood Costco was February 27, 2020. There it is, in my Quicken ledger, $221.16, of which $109.99 was my mom’s purchases.

She stood by a pallet load of red seedless grapes, sliding the clear rectangular containers around, as if trying to solve a puzzle. I suppose she was, her eyes squinted in concentration, to find the freshest one with the healthiest green vines.

Then she shifted over to the cardboard boxes of bananas, excavating through the yellow masses in search for the holy grail: ten in a bunch. Sometimes this took so long that I took out my phone and read a couple of news stories. She saw me waiting, which no doubt rushed her — sorry, mom. What I’d give now to see her pick through a bin of cucumbers. She has not glimpsed the inside of a grocery store since New Jersey went into lockdown in March last year.

April came and went, in silence. T.S. Eliot anointed that month to be the cruelest, and boy, did he ever hit the nail on the head. It was positively post-apocalyptic. I remember going out on a run at the height of rush hour on Washington Avenue, the main thoroughfare of my town, and I did not see a single car for an entire mile.

May was barely better, a phone call on Mother’s Day a poor celebratory substitute. It’s entirely possible my oldest sister, who lives in the same condo complex, brought over her phone and held a masked, socially distanced Zoom session, but honestly, I can’t remember. I’ve stared at so many tiny rectangles of family and friends and co-workers on screens by this point that it’s all a pixelated blur.

Things were looking more promising as the month rolled on, and by the end, I told her I’d come and see her on the first Friday in June. I asked her what she wanted from Costco. Nothing, she said. Don’t worry about it, I have everything I need. My sister and her husband had been buying groceries for her from Whole Foods, but I knew she was just saying that because she didn’t want me making a special trip just for her. Nonsense, I said. We need stuff, too, which was no lie. My wife and I had made do with our local ShopRite, but I missed my cheap organic carrot juice and the massive pink slab of farm-raised salmon.

I asked her again, and she rattled off a list, one I pretty much knew already because she and I have been doing this bi-weekly Costco run for almost twenty years. It’s true she looks forward to this time because she gets to spend it with me, but truer still is that food shopping is her jam. Even without her reading glasses, she knows which bags of spinach are an older batch to be avoided, which box of naval oranges will last two weeks. In my humble (and heavily biased) opinion, she is the Michael Jordan of this very edible sport.

So this is what I’ve been doing for more than half a year now, buying items off my mother’s list then hauling them over to her with my mask on and my hands sanitized. My gathering skills are remedial at best; just last month I bought her a dozen persimmons and one of them turned out rotten, and I’ve only found two ten-legged bananas, one of which was too ripe but I had to get it, if for no other reason to show off a little.

With vaccines now being delivered to health care workers and nursing home residents, the end is seemingly near for the rest of us. But is it, really? As far as I can see, this pandemic has muddled the very concept of personal safety. Before COVID-19, we crammed ourselves elbow to elbow in Broadway plays, cheered for our team with complete strangers, sang along with our favorite singers while standing jam-packed in front of the stage — while constantly exposing ourselves to unknown bacteria and virus. The vaccines are reported to have 95% effectiveness, but if you were told to walk over a bridge and five times out of a hundred it may blow up, would you still make that crossing? Millions may be getting inoculated, but there are still terrifying stories of psychological damage, long-term symptoms requiring multiple hospital stays., and a loss of smell and taste that may last for months, or worse.

Granted, living itself is a risk. Driving a car still remains the most dangerous act, and yet we do it without giving it much thought. But I have to wonder — even after vaccination, is it really worth it for my mother to return to Costco? At her advanced age, she will always be a part of the most vulnerable population. What if she fell into the unlucky 5% and still came down with the coronavirus? And she got it because I enabled and indulged her to this warehouse of plenty, her most favorite shopping destination?

It is a question that I cannot answer, and one I’m afraid to ask her myself because no choice seems ideal and I don’t want to face the consequences. Living out the rest of her years in isolation is a lonely future, and yet dying on a ventilator is even worse — isn’t it?

The only person who is able to answer this difficult question, of course, is my mother herself. As it turned out, the next day to see her with her Costco goods was on the very first of this new year. It’s a big holiday in Korean culture, so big that it’s actually celebrated for three days: the eve, the day, and the day after. One of the more showy portion of the tradition is the sebae, an exaggerated bow that the children perform for their parents. (If you want to impress your own parents for the next new year, knock yourself out.)

After I executed my deep bow maneuver and wished her good fortune, she clapped with delight, then informed me that the real holiday was February 12 this year. I’d forgotten that the lunar calendar is used.

“But we’re here in America, so it makes better sense,” she said.

As I helped her put away her groceries, I made my way to the question at hand: to Costco or not to Costco?

She didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I’m going to wait to get the vaccine,” she said. “A year, maybe. In case there are any bad reactions, you know. Let the eager ones sort things out.”

And then?

“Costco is number two. First, H-Mart.”

H-Mart, for those not in the know, is a chain of Korean-American groceries, mostly located in the New York metro area and California. She’s got one ten minutes away from where she lives. I should’ve known she longed to shop there more than even Costco. And I should’ve also known that this woman, who survived the Korean War as a child, who immigrated to the United States as a forty-year-old, who learned to drive and speak English and work as a salesperson at our family gift shop, had already formulated a plan of action.

Novelist (Skin Deep, Love Love, Everything Asian), essayist (New York Times, Vox), occasional traveler. www.sungjwoo.com

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