I am probably the only one who was crying at the grand and gala opening of the new mega- Whole Foods in Raleigh this morning. I attended the behind the scenes tour a few days ago and was in awe of all the things I did not know about LEED approved building, non-toxic materials, organics, ANDI food categories, which fish are okay to eat and buy and which are not, same for meats, that a healthy dinner for four can be purchased for $14.99 and more. The minute the sign went up a year ago, announcing the coming building and new store I felt a certain sense of victory and ownership of my favorite store. I remember driving by last February and shrieking, “YES!”
I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from Southampton, New York in 1993 with four young sons including a six month old. We moved into an apartment, not being sure just what part of town we would really want to own a house in. That was probably a good idea, because in fact the area we lived in, turned out to not be best. My oldest son was a sixth grader at the time so he began attending a popular middle school in August (this in itself was an adjustment – what no waiting till after Labor Day?). School was a total disaster for my son, Nicholas in that he hated this school, was terrified of everything, had a shop teacher who referred to his wood project as “a piece of crap,” and spent each morning crying his heart out begging me not to send him to school. I literally had no idea of what to do. Coming from New York, home schooling was literally unheard of. It just wasn’t something regularly done in “The Hamptons.”
At a tennis lesson one day, I overheard a group of women discussing their home schooling curriculums which revolved around a Christian theme. Of course, I had soon found out that the meaning of “being a Christian” in the north had a whole different meaning here in the South. In the north, simply not being Jewish, pretty much meant you were Christian. In the south it meant a whole way of living, a philosophy and in many ways what sounded to me as a pretty exclusive way of perceiving God. We were liberal Episcopalians and that is about as far as I went in my version of being Christian. Anyway, soon enough, Nicholas got wind of this idea and begged me to home school him. I cannot explain how foreign this concept was, but I soon found myself attending information and support groups to figure this out and found a secular-hippie-renegade group to join as well. We met weekly at the YWCA downtown and Nicholas made some friends while I socialized with smart and funny other women who I grew very attached to. My kindergartner and fourth grader were happy at their school and so, every single Tuesday, Nicholas and Gregory and I would go to the Y group downtown.
Near the “Y” was a huge natural foods store called, “Wellspring.” I loved it! I had never really seen anything like it since in Long Island I would procure my natural foods mostly from a teeny, high priced local store in Sag Harbor, called Provisions. I never felt like part of the community in Provisions since it seemed a sort of cult group hung out there. We also belonged to a food co-op where monthly we would dip our arms into vats of barley malt and cut up 50 pound blocks of cheese to divide amongst the members. The co-op did provide me with an education and it was truly where I learned about tofu and tempeh, seitan and soy milk, organic and almost organic. In financially desperate times, my husband and I even began selling organic produce out of our Southampton garage weekly which we bought from a local distributor. We would deliver to the rich and famous and stock their refrigerators with organic cherries, wrap their organic Romaine, etc. So, natural foods had worked their way into our lives in a big way and seeing a mass marketer of the stuff in Wellspring, here in North Carolina warmed my heart.
Gregory loved Tuesdays! He and I would leave Nicholas with the group and do our weekly shopping at Wellspring. He cherished climbing out of the cart and illegally imbibing in the bulk bins for a taste of pecans and granola. He snatched a few organic strawberries in season and there was the tell tale red mess all over his face and shirt incriminating him as we checked out. Gregory was the biggest, giggling, fattest baby most folks had ever seen, so the staff at Wellspring all looked forward to our visits and grew to love this squishy guy of mine. One day, a staff member named Mike, named Gregory –“The Wellspring Baby” and posted his photo in their office with that title.
For the next two glorious years of adjusting to life in North Carolina we continued shopping at Wellspring even when they changed their name to “Whole Foods” (having been bought by a bigger company based in Texas.) In 1995, the most horrific tragedy fell upon our family, when dear, sweet Gregory drowned in a pool on vacation in Long Island. Most of the staff of Wellspring/Whole Foods attended the funeral held here in North Carolina and I still remember their young, weeping faces. They had become a part of our community and held us in their hearts.
So, for 18 years since we have lived in North Raleigh, I have been begging Whole Foods to open a store closer to our area. The downtown one takes me over 30 minutes each way and in North Carolina, as opposed to Long Island, no one drives that far to do anything! I have written letters, put suggestions in their suggestion boxes and more. Today, was the grand opening of that store and I was there for the delicious free breakfast and I pulled a piece of the monster bread that they cut open for good luck as they opened the doors and ate it with a smile.
The store was more gorgeous than I could imagine with a plethora of colors of live and healthful local produce and every natural item you could dream of. What a long, long way we have come from the “Alar pesticide” scares of sprayed apples that triggered a desire for organics in the early 80’s. Look how many sellers are in this business now! There was a pulse and energy in the store as if we were all involved in something for the greater good, whether or not this is true, because alas, this is still big business, it felt that way nevertheless.
So, here are the three times I cried and the loud, cool music in the background only helped to trigger my tears. When I saw the perfect, jam packed produce section I cried in memory of my brother in law, Roman. He and I had a difficult, mostly poor relationship, but there were things I respected and admired about him and his food sense was one of them. He worked in produce in both a wholesale and retail capacity, and even when he was completely short of breath and ill, he still managed to stack those carrots in an artful and appealing way. However, he loved food so much that it lead to his death. Addicted to food from an early age, he ate his way to weighing around 300 pounds and of course his heart, new vessels and all gave out two years ago. He left my sister and their two daughters behind which was heartbreaking. So, today, looking at the beautifully done displays of produce, brought tears to my eyes thinking of how much Roman would have loved this.
Next, 16 years later, I suddenly had this flashback of pushing the shopping cart with Gregory smiling in it and me kissing the top of his bald head as we shopped. I kissed that smooth head over and over while I said, “I am so glad you are mine.” I remembered him being the Wellspring baby and began to cry. I looked at the red, ripe strawberries and cried some more and then the bulk bins and then the Earth’s Best baby foods and when I thought it was all too much, “It’s a Wonderful World” starting playing. I sang that to him all the time, so this nearly had me laying on the floor sobbing.
Finally, when I realized it was high time to check out before being carted away for public hysteria, I remembered to buy some Irish beer because tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. This is the day my quintessential Irish father took his last breath in a local nursing facility and died. His last meal was ground up corned beef and cabbage and perhaps his last words had he been able to speak, would have been Erin Go Bragh. It has been 16 years but I still find complete irony in him dying on March 17th, so this too kept my tears rolling.
So, now we have our own mega Whole Foods. I am so glad and though yes, many things are costly there, I think there is a way to shop that makes it feasible. You buy what is on sale, you buy what you can afford, you buy less than you would of an inferior product that has lost its nutrients weeks ago. Adjust your menu, adjust your quantity but know that you are doing your body good, you are helping to keep the environment less toxic, you are supporting a local grower or farmer. And yes, you are supporting a large business but hey, at least they have a bit of heart and they did bring genuine tears to my eyes and my soul.