For better or worse, Norman Rockwell had a big effect on my life. His paintings of America in the '50s etched in my mind a time where things seemed simpler and happier. Because of images like his, pine for a whimsical time when life was face-to-face, when we knew our neighbours, when your local pharmacist smiled with recognition when you walked in his store and your butcher knew the cut of meat you ordered on Thursday.
Fourteen years ago I started a new chapter in my life. I married, bought a new home, and found out I was pregnant in the span of six months. My life swerved away from the fast pace of my former career-woman self to more of a domesticated day-to-day life of wife and mother. That's when I started to make the drive to the large Metro supermarket about ten minutes away.
Twice a week I would peruse the aisles, first with a big pregnant belly, and then with my screaming baby. Years passed. Baby turned into toddler, my belly swelled again, eventually racing through the store with my screaming baby girl and mischievous three-year-old son. Along the way, I started to get to know the cashiers, parking lot guy, and the manager of the supermarket. What was once a lonely scramble to pick up the week's meals became a social affair for me.
And through the years it has continued. The man who cleans up the shopping carts in the parking lot always calls out to me when I drive in and makes sure to help me load my bags into my trunk. The long-time cashiers notice how my kids have grown. I joke with the guy who works in the dairy section while he unloads the cream cheese. Even the butcher comes over and says hi whenever he spots me. This supermarket has become the closest to my Norman Rockwell ideal. It happened because of Tom Sanders, the store manager.
Tom is an anomaly in this day and age of mediocre customer service. While retail stores see high turnover and little loyalty, Tom has been managing this store for twenty four years! He took the time to get to know his customers. Most days you could find Tom standing near the busy checkout area, asking shoppers if he could be of any assistance. He had no problem finding that elusive Shake and Bake package for me or making note of a product a customer wanted the store to carry. He was quick with a joke and ready to sneak discount coupons to regulars like me while we waited in line to check out.
He loved his job. His positive vibe created a trickle down effect amongst the staff, making the store come alive with personality. My weekly shops became me-time. I chose to drive the extra distance to shop at Tom's store rather than the big box shop that opened closer to my home.
Two weeks ago, after work, Tom had a massive heart attack and died. I found out when I walked in for my regular shop and saw a framed photo and a note from the staff. I lost it. The ugly cry. Weeping for the store manager who has kept me company for over a decade while I crossed off my mundane shopping list. I cried and cried for my supermarket friend, always there in his polyester dark blue suit and tie.
Yesterday I stood in the pasta aisle chatting with a new junior manager about Tom's passing, the whirl of the store's major renovation around us. We both welled up. He wants to ask an artist friend of his to paint a portrait of Tom to hang in the newly renovated store; the renovation Tom initiated but will never see.
Tom was one-of-kind, a gentleman who worked hard, lead by example, treated everyone with respect. Tom was the kind of guy Norman Rockwell would have painted. I'm lucky to have known him.
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