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He’s essential to keeping the grocery store going — but as my dad, he’s essential to me

Me and my dad back when enjoying a lovely day was easy.
Me and my dad back when enjoying a lovely day was easy.Althea Osterheldt

For 40 years, he’s worked in grocery stores. He keeps track of the inventory. He throws the freight. He stocks the shelves.

He has but one day off a week. And because he works the graveyard shift, his days are for sleeping. He rarely takes vacation.

He’s been held up at gunpoint during a robbery. He’s worked through aches and pains that come with age. He’s seen Amazon cut into the local grocery store business and force a lot of folks out of jobs.

But for my dad in northern Virginia, like us in Massachusetts and the rest of the world, coronavirus is uncharted territory.

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“In my life, I never thought I’d see this. This is like Armageddon,” he says at 10 a.m. on Friday morning, having only been home for two hours.

I say, "But Daddy, you grew up during the civil rights movement. You lived through the crack era and the AIDS epidemic.”

“As a Black man who grew up in the projects, I’m telling you, this is way worse, boo. This is way worse.”

My dad is almost 60 years old and works 60 hours a week. He puts in 20 hours of overtime to prevent shelves from going bare.

There are shoppers in the aisles when he arrives for work at 10 p.m. When the doors open at 6 a.m., he says at least 35 people are lined up outside.

“This disease, I don’t know,” he says. “This is scary. They are swiping up wipes, Kleenex and Clorox, and toilet paper. I got about 50 calls last night asking if we had toilet paper. I wouldn’t mind it as much, but people are hoarding. How much can you eat and wipe your butt? There’s going to be a guy on the corner selling a roll of toilet paper for $5.”

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My father started working at the grocery store as a teen. And he worked his way up to running the night stock crew. A musician at heart, he can play any instrument by ear, but guitar is his favorite. My mom’s passion was cooking. When she was alive and able to work, she was in food service and restaurant management. At one point, she had her own diner.

We weren’t a perfect little close-knit family. But we were a family of our own, with our big, broken, beautiful love. They made me.

And they were both what America has now deemed essential to basic survival. But neither of them ever felt much appreciated by the public.

“People never treated me nice,” my dad says of customers. “Are you kidding? No Neé, not in all my life. Now everybody is saying ‘thank you,’ but you know, I can’t find a face mask anywhere.”

His job supplies him with masks — but they are paper-thin — so he wraps a bandana around his nose and mouth.

“I want to order some masks off the Internet,” he tells me. “I hope they’re good ones.”

I tell him I’m angry he’s not more protected. I’m frustrated by the state of America. “Are you afraid to go to work?” I ask him.

“Never let it make you mad,” he says. “No, I’m not afraid. Come on, girl. The one thing I’ve thought about is how every decade or 20 years some serious virus or war or something shows up and comes along and hurts or wipes away a lot of people. I don’t know why.”

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I tell him Bill Withers died. He used to play those records when I was a kid. Now he plays the CDs. My dad’s not the streaming kind.

“Did he die of coronavirus?” he asks, before singing a few verses of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

“No, his heart,” I say.

“You don’t know nothing about Bill Withers,” my dad jokes with me.

And then he asks me something in almost a whisper, a delicate tone I rarely hear in his cadence: “Are you OK, Tweety? Are you and Pep [my dog] staying inside?”

I assure him we are comfortably uncomfortable in isolation. I’m using my inhaler daily. I have enough food and work is steady.

“People don’t understand what it means to be quarantined,” he says. “They just don’t understand. And I see people in prison and nursing homes dying. And no one cares. They think being quarantined is being locked up.”

Because they can’t go anywhere else, people go to the grocery stores, and they shop until the shelves are bare. And people like my dad, the night owls who work until their muscles tighten and their knees build callouses, the people who don’t make it home until the morning, aren’t just restocking America’s bare necessities. They’re restocking sanity and supplies for self-soothing.

“You sure you are all right, Daddy,” I ask one more time.

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“I am fine. I promise,” he tells me. And then he asks about my mama. They split up when I was 10 but kept in touch.

“Neé, how old was she when she, you know?” he tries to remember.

“61,” I say. "Barely, her birthday was a few months prior. I miss her.”

“Me too. Every day,” he admits. “When I die, don’t cry. Pop lived a good life, girl, trust me. I miss you.”

We haven’t seen each other in six months. Our schedules don’t allow for routine conversations. I miss him, too. But we’ve been on the phone an hour. It’s after 11 a.m., and I know he needs to eat and get some rest before he returns to the grocery store grind.

He sings a little bit more of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

And in return, I sing “Lovely Day.”

Then I look at you

And the world’s alright with me

Just one look at you

And I know it’s gonna be

A lovely day

We hang up. I don’t know when I’ll see a lovely day with him again. But it’s essential that I do.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.