Grief How Watching ‘Supermarket Sweep’ Gives Me Hope After Loss
Supermarket Sweep is what gets me the closest, catapulting me back to a time when we were alive, together.
Every episode of Supermarket Sweep starts the same way—an animation of a bounding shopping cart faces a supermarket, and the narrator asks a single question: What kind of race is this? The first moments enchant me. Three contestant pairs chosen from the studio audience run to the stage—a grocery store set—with enthusiasm.
Let’s face it , the narrator says. You never know what’s going to happen on Supermarket Sweep !
But I do know. Originally broadcast in the mid-1960s, the reprisal hosted by David Ruprecht was filmed in a studio modeled after a chain of supermarkets. Teams compete to earn time; then they race. I return to this show because I am hoping to find my mother somehow. Even though she died over two years ago, I search for her by studying old television shows as if they will open a door I can find her behind. Supermarket Sweep is what gets me the closest, catapulting me back to a time when we were alive, together. It returns me to a kind of joy that is otherwise difficult to access now.
The contestant pairs are roommates, college friends, married couples, siblings. Sometimes, they are a mother-daughter set.
Even when contestants lose, they win: Every team starts with a minute and a half they don’t relinquish. If they fail collecting increments of time during the various games, they still have ninety seconds to participate in the final “Super Sweep,” a free-for-all shopping spree with the objective of finishing with the highest grocery bill. The winning team advances for a chance to win five thousand dollars, if they can put together three clues.
Look for the powder package with a picture of a pitcher (Kool-Aid); Once a year a thoughtful spouse sends a mailed message (anniversary card); If you win, you might hit this juicy note (Hi-C).
King-size packages of diapers, Tang tins, sleeves of razors, olive oil jugs, and lumps of beef are the big-ticket items. No one ever goes for the produce, cereal, or baked goods, unless they are incentivized as bonuses.
I think about game shows a lot lately, because my missing is so unpredictable, so unending, and these shows are anything but. I know exactly what will happen when I sit down to watch—there will be joy, and someone will not lose.
Television was a ritual. Alone after school and on long summer days while my mother worked, a selection of cookies were often my companions: pink and white frosted sugars dipped in sprinkles, oatmeals painted with a lacy trim of glaze, Nilla Wafers whose crumbly edges fell apart in my hands. After the cookies, I moved to the freezer, sparing my mother’s After Eights. A spendy indulgence, they waited until she ate them in the evenings with our shows. My mother was single and raising children on her own, working a nine-to-five clerical job, cleaning houses on weekends for extra money. Television was our pleasure, cheap entertainment, the After Eights one luxury item she treated herself to.
I gathered my treats and stationed myself in front of our hand-me-down Panasonic, where I sat until my mother finished work and it was time to watch together: Star Trek: The Next Generation , X-Files , Babylon 5 . I can put us right there so easily: me on the shag carpet at the legs of the sofa, my rubbermaid container of Legos assembled from small kits and garage sales spilled out. She stands at the refrigerator at the small kitchen’s entrance. When she opens it, a sigh of air from the freezer blows through her blond hair.
It’s Tuesday: Wheel of Fortune , then Quantum Leap.
“What’s Vanna wearing?” my mother asks from the sink, her fingers in the box of chocolatey wafers. On the screen, everything sparkles: the shoes, the letters, the dress.
“Sequins,” I say, snapping plastic blocks together to form the living room set of Who’s the Boss .
She returns, studies my construction, touches the top of my head before stretching out on the couch, ready to turn to science fiction because she always is.
I watched everything. Soap operas, talk shows, reruns. Sally Jessy Raphael and The Twilight Zone , Sesame Street and Three’s Company . I memorized the broadcasting schedule from the TV Guide I studied when I visited my grandparents’ and toggled between shows during commercial breaks. I could swallow game shows and sitcoms for hours, but my mother only liked the bending of the unreal into the actual; an impossible, made material .
The Supermarket Sweep reruns unveil my mother. I can still conjure her slipping away in my mind so easily, so clearly, but I want more. I want the before-parts, her . Her quiet and her laugh. The care she took of the things we had, how she hung glass prisms in the windows to make rainbows on the walls. When I watch Supermarket Sweep , I’m transported back to the ’90s and she comes swimming into view: a ridge of knuckles, the bridge of her nose, small stone finger rings. But I can’t put her on the sofa with me now during reruns. I can’t make us the mother-daughter pairing.
I want the before-parts, her. Her quiet and her laugh.
I keep a photograph taped above the wall where I write, to remind me what is at stake: grief diluting my memories so much I’ll be entirely carried away from her and the former version of myself she knew. Writing keeps me in this dimension. In the photo, I wear a striped onesie and shove a fistful of cake into my mouth. My mother is behind my shoulder, watching me. The sheer delight on her face is so clear that looking at it sometimes makes me weep.
I cover the image with a sticky note sometimes because the image reminds me she is gone, the two-dimensional version a terrible alternative. Sometimes I cover it out of worry for what I might have lost entirely: a capacity for joy.
I love game shows for the same reason I love sitcoms—they follow a highly reliable narrative. Contestants who want to win complete challenges in order to advance. Even losing is made to look like pleasure.
The entire outfit served as a parade of product placement, but that wasn’t what drew me in. It was the joy-rush—everyone on the show was so happy. For those twenty-one minutes, they left life’s hardships behind the way I wanted to. In that store, there was only room for exultation.
The show is structured in three segments. To start, the host leads teams through a series of games where pairs earn “sweep time” in ten-second increments, including “Scrambled Letters,” “Fill in the Blank,” and “This or That?”
This word starts with a p and ends with an o : P_ _ _ _ _ _ _ O.
In equal portions when cooked, do frozen peas or frozen beans have more calories?
When I watch the show, my muscle memory kicks in. I play along like I did as a child, shouting answers at the screen. I am on my feet during the sweep, forgetting for a moment my mother cannot stand in the room adjacent to me with her After Eights.
Once, my husband rushed breathlessly into the room where I watched.
“What’s wrong?” he screamed, alarmed from the noise.
“It’s nothing,” I said and pointed to the show. The team had won the final prize, a stash of fake cash spread out like a hand fan. He nodded, walked back to where he’d come from. He understands by now that the viewing is my grief externalized. It is a way to get out of its shadow.
In some ways, the television invites a conversation. Most game shows break the fourth wall in some kind of way—a vocal narration at the opening, direct address by the host, or sometimes even contestants themselves. When Ruprecht addresses the audience, I dream of him stopping to acknowledge me watching.
Dave , I’d ask: Why do I play along, when I know I won’t win?
Kristin , he’d say, a game is a possibility, even if you already know the outcome. It is a chance to experience winning again.
I have always loved grocery stores: the ordered shelves, the galleries formed by corn cans’ labels, displays of produce shaped into rainbows through sprays of descending water. I could stand forever watching the droplets come together on the beefy heads of lettuce, the checkerboard made from cereal-box fronts. There is something infinite about the supermarket, the restocking cycle that feels like magic: Anything that goes missing gets replaced.
When my mother and I went grocery shopping, we moved with discernment, holding the coupons she’d clipped ahead of time from Sunday advertisements. Lunchables, Squeezits, and fresh orange juice were too expensive. Instead, we bought the juice from the frozen aisle whose can peeled off in one slick roll, a frozen concentrate pressed into a cylinder. At home we’d add water to a large pitcher and stir until the roll dissolved into a sugary liquid I drank standing at the refrigerator.
Grocery store trips with her were their own kind of predictable, a weekly routine I will never get back. I long for even a moment to stroll with her through the aisles, to press our hands against the cold glass doors, behind them, glossy wrappers filled with the frozen peas she heated in the microwave. If only I had known that the certainties of errands would be what I would long for most in her absence, perhaps I would have taken better care of noticing more: The exact way she stood in line at the cashier’s stand. Her greeting to the baggers. What we talked about as we pushed the shopping cart through the parking lot.
My mother loved spells, fairies, wizards. Anything that could shift a reality, give hope or promise to circumstance. Growing up I read the encyclopedia for fun, loved facts and solving logic puzzles. In this way, she and I could not have been more different.
Now, the only potential solution for missing my mother is magic—or something with zero odds of transpiring.
Now, the only potential solution for missing my mother is magic—or something with zero odds of transpiring. I try not to think about the game I’m really playing: me, the only half left of the mother-daughter pair. The clock I operate on ticks up instead of down, the time since I’ve last seen her accumulating, pushing us further apart. The clues the contestants receive during the “Super Sweep” leading them to the final prize all relate to products, but in my imagined game, the rewards are all scenarios of unending time. She stands always at the beach with a perfectly formed sand dollar the tide cannot take back. She holds the sunflowers she grew, the florets made impervious to wilting.
Kristin , This or That? I imagine Dave asking while I watch. In equal portions of sorrow or missing, which one, when experienced, hurts the most?
Recently, I’ve considered the probability puzzle called the Monty Hall Problem, where a game show contestant chooses one door out of three. After, the host reveals a goat behind one of the two other doors and then asks the player if they’d like to keep their selection or open the last door, behind which either a car or second goat waits. Most think the probability of selecting the car still remains the same, but computer simulations show the host’s first choice—and a change in initial selection—are probabilistic actions much different than random selection. The host has to open one door with a goat behind it, modifying statistical likelihoods.
If faced with the Monty Hall Problem, I would always switch doors. I would always open all of them. I would always flee from where I stood beside the host in the studio audience and charge the stage, unfastening each with such force they would come sailing off their hinges. I like the Monty Hall Problem in this scenario because I have the chance of somehow finding her behind one of the openings.
As pairs race through aisles on Supermarket Sweep , I get closer to a former version of myself, one where I’m not consumed by loss: a version where she still exists and there is still time. A minute and a half. I would take that to be with her again, if I could. I would take just seconds—even just one—if it were offered. In the checkout line, this time I would note the color of the cashier’s apron, the way my mother held her pen signing the check. Pushing the cart across the asphalt to the car, I’d commit every word and sound to permanent memory where it could never be overridden by time. I would create just one more trip I could play back in perfect detail like a rerun, forever.
What kind of race is this? It is a race against sorrow. It is a race against myself.
Only one team advances for the chance to win the five thousand dollars during the “Super Sweep,” but everyone is at least given a try. No one ever really loses anything: the vanquished return home, and nothing has been taken from them except a possibility.
A part of me hopes I’ll queue up the show and my mother will step from the television, her honey-colored hair permed into curls, her skin tanned from the sun, lips perfectly glossed, a crystal hanging from her neck. She’ll be the age she was when I first watched Supermarket Sweep , because that is what my memory holds strongest, before time and illness shaped her differently. She will sit beside me on the couch, and I’ll shut us inside the room, lock the doors, barricade them with furniture, with my body, with anything I can find to make her stay.
For me, color, art, and flowers’ capacities—things I typically derive great pleasure from—still feel so blunted. I have started paying very careful attention to edges. I don’t just look at the flower; I look at each petal. At each petal’s creases, searching for openings. These moments pause my missing.
In 1923, Rilke wrote in a letter, “For people who are permanently caught in sorrow in this way there is only one liberation: to lift suffering itself up into one’s own gaze and from there let it assist one’s vision.” I am lifting up shopping carts one by one. I am lifting the lettuce, the cereal boxes, the detergent and batteries. I am lifting up every item in the grocery store and I am putting them into my gaze, looking for the little doors each one might harbor. I’d like to say they are getting easier to find.
When I watched a rerun for the first time in decades, my husband joined me. At the theme song’s notes, anticipation washed through: a muscle memory. By the conclusion, my face hurt from smiling. My husband said he has never seen me as gleeful. Meaning, never as gleeful as even when my mother was still alive.
Why do I play along when I know I won’t win? Because of hope. Its own kind of opening.