Grammy Takes on Wal-Mart

With two of three adult children living on the opposite edge of the country, our family Thanksgiving was a pared down affair this year. As we gathered with a smaller-than-usual handful of family and friends on the left coast, Daughter and Younger Son joined a noisy, generous gathering of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back east.

But this isn’t a story of family bonding over stupor-inducing carbohydrates, or one about avoiding conflict with difficult relatives, or a nostalgic journey through sentimental holidays past. Nope. This is a brief tale of how my sassy 83-year-old mother-in-law became a political activist on Black Friday.

* THE SCENE:  It’s Friday morning, November 23rd. Daughter and Younger Son are meeting their grandmother for breakfast after a day and a night of the usual Thanksgiving overindulgence. Not inclined to spend another bloated, food-focused day, YS, a professional Community Organizer in a major metropolitan area (oh yes, he does get paid for that), suggests they drive over to the local Wal-Mart and join in the national Black Friday protest against low wages and poor working conditions. He explains the importance of this growing movement for working people and in a nanosecond all are on board. Game on!

YS:  So we climb into Grammy’s car for a white knuckle ride to the nearest Wal-Mart.

Picture a slightly more conventional Bella Abzug (without the hat) climbing behind the wheel, heading to parts unknown, bat out of hell, two grandchildren in tow …

D:  When we get there we see a straggly group of 10 or 20 with signs, marching around in a circle with no particular plan. We join them, and YS immediately takes charge, teaching a few chants and phrases … Organizing Basics 101. Grammy is all in, and I mean 100%. The group is getting bigger and shoppers going into the store are stopping to look. A while later the lead worker/protester announces that in 30 minutes we’ll enter the store and head to the rear where the Electronics Department (ground zero on Black Friday) is located.

YS:  After 3 or 4 minutes, Grammy approaches him and loudly proclaims (demands?), “It’s cold out here. Let’s just march inside now.” It’s hard to argue that point, so the group heads inside, chanting and waving the signs. Shortly after we arrive at Electronics the store manager appears and says very nicely, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave. You can’t do that here.”

D:  So we make a strategic plan to head to the front doors, walking slowly up and down every aisle as we go, chanting and waving. The group energy is rising by the minute, and YS starts chanting REALLY loud, “Don’t shop at Wal-Mart, don’t shop at Wal-Mart!” He keeps it up over and over, and all the shoppers are stopping to stare now.

YS:  No surprise, Mr. Manager reappears and isn’t quite as friendly as before. He says that now we MUST get out immediately — we’re disrupting the customers (seems like that was the idea, no?), and he’s getting really irate.  So Grammy walks over to him, and in her most calming voice says, “Don’t worry — that’s my grandson. He’s a community organizer, just like our President. He’s a good boy and is just trying to help these people make a decent living. We’re leaving now, don’t get upset.” She continues to chat him up as we head outside; I’m thinking he likes her.

The group departs quietly to continue their protest outside the store, having made every Wal-Mart shopper squirm uncomfortably and hopefully consider the real cost of those five dollar t-shirts.

I applaud anyone who’s willing to stand up and speak out at any age, but my children’s grandmother has earned our very special admiration. I can hear my crew now, describing it to their own kids one day … “Let me tell you about the time Grammy marched on Wal-Mart …” 

We love you, Grammy.

* As told to this blogger by Daughter and Younger Son. Confirmed with affection by Grammy.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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