I often explain to my kids that television "events" such as the Charlie Brown Christmas special were a big deal when I was little because we had only four channels and not much children's programming existed. The same can be said, in a rather convoluted way, about grocery stores.
Even though I stopped being a regular Dahl's shopper long ago, the news that the chain will no longer exist has made me sad. Although the stores have become shadows of their former selves, Dahl's, in its heyday, was the Des Moines area's preferred place to buy groceries. And a few of the stores have figured prominently into parts of my life.
When you're preschool-age and lose a parent, you end up not knowing if the memories you think you have of that parent are actually yours, or you've collected them through others' recollections. One of only a couple of memories I'm sure was my own involved a trip to Dahl's on Fleur Drive with my mother. I was no more than 3, and she was very sick.
In my mind's eye, we were alone that day, which was rare, as she needed others to help care for her. Or maybe others were there, and their faces faded as I focused on my mother's. At any rate, we sat in the store's snack-bar area. I don't know what she ate, or if she did, but I ordered a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and French fries. The jelly must have been jam, actually -- raspberry, with tiny seeds. Raspberry is still my favorite.
I can see the servers in their white uniforms and nurses' shoes. I can see my mother's face, but I can't hear her voice. I remember feeling excited to be there with her, and I remember wanting -- as if I were on a date -- to make a good impression, to make her smile or laugh. Understandably, I didn't often have my mother to myself, and I remember feeling very proud to have eaten everything on my plate (as if that were ever a concern with me, but it was, for whatever reason, a big deal that day). I remember holding her hand when we left the store, and that her palm was cool. And then I don't remember her anymore.
After she died, my dad and I moved to West Des Moines to live with my sister, who was already married. My sister, who had essentially been raising me since I was 2, took on the task of mothering me, and I began accompanying her on shopping trips to what was then a relatively new Dahl's on the edge of Valley Junction, the area my family called "Old West Des Moines."
The best thing about this store? Something called a "kiddie corral," which consisted of vinyl-backed chairs arranged around a pit of books. The premise was that children could stay happily occupied in the "corral" while their mothers shopped -- a set-up that would never fly today, but we all felt safer then. Teresa would find me where she had left me, immersed in some dog-eared volume and reluctant to leave.
Later, in my first great act of independence, a friend and I ran across the street to Dahl's one Saturday from the West Des Moines library and bought glass bottles of 7-Up, then took them back to the library and stood against the wall, feeling very grown-up as we drank them down. I'm not sure we'd been given permission, but we each had a quarter, and with pounding hearts, we traded those quarters for cold, sugary sweetness. Some 40-plus years later, when I taste a 7-Up, I'm back in that store.
I earned my driver's license a few years later, and I was given a pretty small area in which I could travel. But I was allowed to drive to Dahl's, and, wow -- talk about feeling grown-up. I recall driving there solo for the first time; it was 1979 and I was wearing cut-off jeans and a t-shirt with a rainbow across the front, and I really wanted all the other shoppers to notice that I was putting my own car keys in my own pocket. My classmates Mario and Tommy worked there, and I remember hoping to see them so I could mention, oh-so-casually, that I had driven myself.
And on and on, in and out of various Dahl's stores ... the Ingersoll Dahl's, where my grandma shopped, with its underground conveyor belt that took groceries out to a little house where shoppers could pick them up, bagged just-so. Another in West Des Moines when I was first married. And the big flagship store on Merle Hay when my own kids were small. I'd load my baby and toddler in the double stroller and push them for the three-mile round trip, also stopping at the fabric store down the street to buy buttons for our button collection. Money was tight in those days and I really should have shopped at Aldi, but denying my kids Dahl's felt like too big a sacrifice.
Several years ago now, Dahl's started feeling dark and a little empty, and the prices began inching up and the produce department started smelling like mold. I'd never been a Hy-Vee shopper, but I gave the one in Johnston a try and found it to be bright and shiny and homey, and before long, I knew where everything was. When we moved to Urbandale, I became enamored with the giant Hy-Vee on 86th, and that's now "my" store.
But we do live a bit closer to a Dahl's, and every so often, I'll stop by there on my way home from work to pick up an item or two. It's dark in there, and the shelves are emptier each time I visit; the inventory is discounted, and soon it will all be gone. And I'm reminded that this is the way life works; just as children's programming is everywhere on TV, groceries are available at big-box stores and convenience stores and online.
Hy-Vee has made the business model work; Dahl's didn't. Some say the powers-that-be made bad decisions, but chances are they were simply doing what they thought was right at the time.
Dahl's mascot is a blue-and-orange owl, and the stores are selling replicas -- presumably to raise money to pay their creditors, sadly enough. So I bought one, and then I went back to buy a couple for my kids. I put them in their Christmas stockings, and Scott, 26 now, took his out first.
"This reminds me of all the walks we took, and then going to buy buttons for the button box," he said.A lump formed in my throat.
It's the end of an era. I jumped ship long ago, but Godspeed, Dahl's. You still bring faces to life for me, and I'll remember you.