My maternal focus on survival in the grocery store

lioness cuddling with two cubs

By Susannah Q. Pratt
Susannah Q. Pratt

During the first weeks of sheltering in place, in an attempt to provide some at-home education before the schools sent along actual curriculum, our family watched a National Geographic nature documentary entitled “The Flood.” Narrated by Angela Basset, “The Flood” traces a year in the life of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Packed with wildlife footage so intimate and unbelievable that one is forced to ask aloud, at regular intervals, how the filming was even possible, the documentary follows the lifecycle of the flood plains—capturing everything from underwater vegetation, to insect and bird life, to the antics of a herd of elephants.

Then, of course, there are the big cats. Americans love a big cat—as another recent smash-hit docuseries has made abundantly clear. Though lacking the dramatic flare of Joe Exotic, the big cats featured in “The Flood” are captivating in their own right—their grace and power at times breathtaking. A scene featuring a leopard lying in wait for an unsuspecting antelope to come grazing beneath the tree that she has scaled has us at the edge of our seats. We jump back and cover our mouths in horror as she pounces from above, taking the antelope by surprise and tackling it to the ground. Nature, I am reminded, isn’t pretty.

*

Grocery shopping during a pandemic is a strange and stressful endeavor. In my densely populated suburb, it entails masking up and donning gloves upon leaving home. Once inside the store, the goal is to spend as little time in the actual building as possible. In preparation, I make a comprehensive and precise list so the whole thing can go down like a surgical strike, and not like a meandering stroll. To shave time off my trip and incur less human contact, I master the self-checkout. All this preparation means I can be in and out of my local store in less than 20 minutes, securing just what we need to subsist for two more weeks. What this also means is that an activity that once filled me with joy, acquiring the food necessary to feed my family, has taken on new significance. Where I was once gatherer, I am now hunter.

*

Patience is a hallmark of the feline huntresses of the Okavango. These lady cats do not pounce on the first clueless impala to cross their path. Instead they wait, watch, and bide their time. The aforementioned leopard spent a day observing under which tree her prey was most likely to congregate. Then, she plotted a course to the base of the tree, finding a quiet moment to climb it—largely unnoticed by those around her. Once precariously perched on her branch, she remained poised and ready for hours—her camouflage and stillness luring the antelope back with a false sense of security. Slowly, they returned to continue grazing under her tree, unaware. 

When at long last one of the herd began to move within her range, she continued to wait and hold, releasing her grip and springing from on high only when she was certain to land her target. Watching the giant cat sail through the air toward the antelope’s waiting back, it becomes abundantly clear what a high stakes gambit this hunting is; thoughtful preparation is all.

*

Despite the fact that my sons are eleven, fourteen, and sixteen, and have appetites commensurate with their ages, I have managed to keep the shopping to a minimum—heading to the store roughly every ten to twelve days.

Shopping at this frequency, or—rather—infrequency, has required something of all of us. For my once selective eater, it has meant expanding his palate and eating food that has not been customized for him. For my eldest, who is no great fan of leftovers, it has required an openness to a dinner-lunch-lunch sequence made up of the same bowl of chili.

For me, a suggestible home cook inspired by foodie websites and not my pantry, shelter-in-place cooking has imposed new discipline. Meal planning has become a weekly ritual, as has actually adhering to this plan. We have changed the way we approach breakfast and lunch—the question no longer, what are you in the mood for, but instead: what do we have? Or, more commonly, “Anyone want a quesadilla?”

Toward the end of the ten-day span, pickings start to get slim. No one really wants the soggy neon dill pickles that I cut up and put on a plate to accompany lunch. Everyone is over scrambled eggs. The boys begin to agitate for me to go to the store. Are you going today, they ask, pouring another bowl of Cheerios for breakfast. Not yet, I tell them, I think we can put it off for one more day. I make peanut butter and jelly for lunch, again. I wait and hold.

*

The end of “The Flood” features the most cliché of hunting scenes. A mother lion is on the prowl, slinking through the tall grass, stalking a herd of springbok—a type of antelope native to Botswana. As the scene opens, the springbok are not entirely oblivious; they look around nervously, sensing something amiss. The lioness crouches and waits, hidden from their view. A few springbok begin to hop away as she readies herself for the kill. Before the deer scatter in earnest, she zeroes in on one and begins to give chase. 

My family watches through their fingers and from behind pillows. We all know how this is going to end and that the cinematography of “The Flood” will spare us little. Sure enough, the female lion soon catches up with her prey, taking a large bite of its rear haunch, bringing it to its knees. Predictably, she then goes for the jugular. The springbok flails its legs a final time as the life ebbs out of it.

The female lion drags the carcass away from the site of the slaughter and towards her waiting cubs. The cubs, adorable and kitten-like, make for some cognitive dissonance as they prance up over the dead springbok and tear into its flesh. The pinkish crimson of fresh blood is soon smeared across their furry, whiskered faces. We watch, somewhat horrified and somewhat charmed, as they tear through layers of skin and sinew to the meaty flesh beneath. 

The camera cuts to the mother lion reclining nearby in the sun. She has no need to join in the feast; instead she looks on, satisfied, as her cubs eat their fill. Gone is the tense, focused huntress on the prowl. In this moment, she is utterly relaxed.

*

I make a stressful, overdue trip to Costco wearing a new mask that doesn’t stay securely over my nose and mouth. When I arrive at the store, not only is there a long line to enter but also far more people than I expect once inside. Maneuvering around people and their carts, I attempt, and often fail, to maintain six feet of distance. I watch as supplies disappear quickly into other people’s carts and deliberate when, if ever, is the right time to pounce. Competition does not come naturally to me. I look at some elderly shoppers and wonder why they are out. I see another man in uniform and wonder if he might be a first responder. I worry they may not be getting what they need. Then I decide to stop writing scripts in my head. I focus and do what needs to be done, making my way mercilessly through the store. 

Two hours later I pull into our driveway, exhausted and unsettled, frozen chicken breasts, tubs of lettuce, and cartons of milk filling the back of my car. I unload the groceries so my husband can begin wiping down the boxes and bags before bringing them inside. As soon as they hear the backdoor open, my boys appear. While I wash my hands, they rush past us to carry in the rest of the sanitized goods. After another round of hand washing, they tear joyfully into a bag of Pirate’s Booty. White cheese dust soon coats their fingers and lips as they move on to open the giant box of Wheat Thins. I step aside from the feeding frenzy and sit down in the sun to look on while the boys eat their fill. 

These are strange times. All our actions—even the most mundane, the ones that we used to take for granted—are laced with the question of survival. The decision to see those we love, or to bring in our mail, has become the stuff of life or death importance. Existing this way puts an essential frame on things. It changes us.

In the many roles I have assumed as parent, I never aspired to hunter. The ruthlessness, the gore—all of it is contrary to my nature. But in this bizarre world we now inhabit, I find that the mother lion and I are simpatico. As much as it disturbs me, a basic instinct—animal and ancient—has awakened in me. I have provided for my family. For the moment, I relax.

Susannah Q. Pratt’s current hunting ground is Evanston, IL where she lives with her husband, three sons and a dog.  To see more of her writing, head to susannahqpratt.com.

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