Thirty five miles west of Chicago sits Sleepy Hollow, a village at the cusp of the Illinois prairie. Half in the woods and half on the prairie. My husband and I moved here ten years ago with our daughter and bought our forever house, a rambling, two story green wood colonial that sits under a canopy of walnut trees and lacy redbuds. To Chicago friends who don’t know where Sleepy Hollow is (and none of them do), we said that if we move any further west, we’ll be living in Iowa.
The road to our house cuts off from Highway 72 through town and follows an ancient Indian trail that pushes up against a bluff. Above the bluff there is flat land for horse-lovers and quaint, tidy farms. It is perfect flat land for stormy winds to plow east, push down old trees and peel off roofs in the spring. In other words, perfect flat land for development.
In the spring of our first year, for weeks, men built the store, balancing pre-fabricated slabs of cement against wood posts, making walls that stretch for a block. They scraped the prairie’s dark epidermis with bulldozers to make acres of asphalt parking lots. “They’re building a building!” I’d say to Molly, just three then, pointing out progress as we’d drive by each day. More weeks passed and a green sign appears on one of the slabs that says “Woodman’s.” A big box store was born.
My new best friend was Tami, a quirky and bubbly woman whose daughter shared her preschool days with Molly. Although I am closer in age to Tami’s mother than to her, we became friends. Three times a week we deposited the girls at 9am at the Grace Lutheran Church basement preschool and while they painted, sang and ate oyster crackers, we trolled the local garden centers that Tami rooted out of the countryside. Some days we’d end up in someone’s back yard digging day lilies, others we’d crunch along the pea gravel paths of cracked greenhouses, gazing at moss-lined pots.
Tami is a self-taught gardener and her garden is jumbled with perennials, annuals, broken statues and abandoned country furniture, all arranged in no particular design or order. The mess of blooms ends up looking charming and every spring she crams in more.
My garden, misshapen, oversized and tilled from rocky limestone soil that broke two tillers, sits at the edge of our property like a lanky and lonely girl at a school dance, hoping to fit in to the surroundings, yet still attract some attention. Despite three years of horticulture classes and three certificates attesting to my cultivation skills, I am no landscape designer. In addition, I must garden with budgetary restraint, letting a few choice perennials grow for a couple of years before dividing later. It is a slow and unrewarding propagation technique recommended for people who plan to live there forever. I fill in the naked ground with cheap flower seeds. For fun I plant vegetables: Early Girl, Roma and cherry tomatoes, purple peppers and lots of herbs.
Watching Tami fill the back of her rusty Volvo stationwagon week after week with plastic greenhouse pots, I germinate with jealousy. We are both stay-at-home mothers, responsible for every dime travelling in and out of our pockets. How dare she set foot near another garden center, recklessly buying plants in threes and fives like the magazines recommend? I wonder how she does it.
“Have you been to Woodman’s yet?” Tami asked one day as we jostled along the prairie road heading back into town. The morning’s herbaceous booty scents her rusty Volvo from the backseat. I saw the cement behemoth up on the new road to the west of town, but didn’t know what it was and didn’t care.
“It’s a grocery store! It’s got everything! And it’s cheap!” Having been over to Tami’s house for cocktails and dinner I knew it must be true. Tami serves food with a bewildering assortment of condiments from around the world that if bought at Whole Foods would cost a fortune. Colorful from India. Spicy marinades from the Caribbean. Nut-stuffed olives from Greece and Italy. Exotic sauces, oils, herbs and spices line every dish creating alchemy the likes of which we had never tasted. And all of it was from Woodman’s, from the palatial Pickles and Condiments aisle.
I confess. I lied. The real reason I had not been to Woodman’s is that it scared me. It is so big it is intimidating to a small-town girl who, growing up in west Michigan, sometimes bought groceries with her mother off a shelf in someone’s house. It’s true. We’d climb a flight of wood stairs, enter a small makeshift grocery store off a living room and buy cans of soup and gravy for five cents. It was strange, but convenient, a 1962 version of 7-Eleven. For me to cross Woodman’s threshold would require a feat of bravery. I am a chicken at heart.
After talking with Tami I knew the inevitable. Wanting to save a few bucks I mustered the nerve a few weeks later to enter Woodman’s via the comforting aroma of the bakery department. All I needed was a loaf of bread. Through the double glass doors stretched a good six aisles of every kind of bread and pastry from the four corners of the continent, including Mexico. On one end was an additional bakery in case you underestimated your donut needs. On the other end was the wall of “healthy” bread, which meant pitas and hardtack varieties. I stood by one of the 28 checkout stations and watched people stack piles of bread into their carts with fervor. Backing out of the store, I retreated to the safety of my car, parked somewhere in Section D. Just beyond the gray cement walls, out back beyond the piles of discarded shipping boxes, a field of wild daisies and grasses bent in the wind. The remaining prairie. My silent friend.
Eventually, over the seasons and years I came to know and appreciate Woodman’s, mostly for its massive cheese aisle. This delightful department spans the length of the entire back wall and offers cultured milk products in every form known to man. My favorite is fresh mozzarella balls, and I had my choice of them from four different Wisconsin dairies, in three different sizes.
I still had to mentally gear up to go shopping and set aside at least an hour to maneuver the massive runways of food, but in the end, I stretched my budget and our staid Midwestern palates. I also started filling my garden with all my favorites, in quantities of threes and fives, just like the magazines tell you.