I had an interesting experience recently at Shaws (a local grocery store). I was on the checkout line, and waiting behind me, a young girl stood holding her baby. Both of them were very young. He must have been much less than a year old – and though looks can be deceiving, she didn’t appear to be more than 20. He was quiet and spent most of his time looking around while teething on a small felt toy. She spoke to him softly about everything around them.
She pointed to each item in her cart, describing in detail their purpose. He didn’t understand what she said, of course, but he drew himself closer to her as she spoke to him in a calm, mellow voice. I smiled at them both. She returned the smile. I noticed her son had inherited her large, sad eyes.
She appeared tired, but very happy to have him with her. They were quite content with each other’s company. Then I noticed a few more things: she was dressed poorly; her son’s clothes were a little too big for him, probably to anticipate his growth. She held on to him tightly, and I saw that she had nowhere to place him when it came time for her to check out. I saw what was in the cart: baby formula, baby food, diapers, milk, eggs, bread, and two boxes of frozen pizza.
I was curious about her, so as I unloaded my groceries I listened closely to what she said to her son. She expressed concern to him that her mother was going to miss them and not meet them in front of Shaw’s at their appointed time. She spoke to him softly, but urgently, as though he were much older and could understand. He looked at her intently as if to commiserate, but remained quiet, never letting go of her, or his toy.
Then she talked to him about the stuff I was unloading from my cart. She had a story for every item placed upon the conveyer, each having it’s own useful purpose and plan. On any other day, I would have been amused and have gone on my way. But suddenly, that persistent “small, still voice” within my heart disclosed that this young woman and her son probably had nobody but themselves. I got a sense that, apart from her own mother, she and her son were alone, and perhaps outcasts.
I was nearly through the line when suddenly I felt compelled to do something. I requested extra money with my receipt, and handed it to her; I felt it was a feeble way of helping her, but I couldn’t stop myself. She looked at me and said: you don’t have to do that, and I mumbled something like: I know, but please take it, which she did after a second’s hesitation. Her face registered several emotions. She appeared both grateful and embarrassed, and for a split second, distrustful, as though she were used to giving up something of herself in return for kindness. Her son stared at me thoughtfully, almost measuring me up.
I left the store, packed my stuff in the car, and sat for a minute. I realized I was shaking and breathing shallowly. I couldn’t place my own emotions. I felt as though I had not acted on my own volition, but through someone else’s direction. As I started the car and backed out of the space, I saw her walking to a car, holding her son while trying to push the cart.
I saw she had trouble with the cart, and I wondered how she would negotiate her groceries into the car and hold her son at the same time. I pulled over, stopped my car, and walked towards her. I offered to put her groceries in the trunk of her car. She looked at me and smiled the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. She said: gee, I’m not used to having such nice things done for me, and I replied: there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?
She said yes, and smiled again. Her son kept his eyes on me. Within the short moment of our exchange, there was so much I wanted to tell her, but I had no idea what to say. Instead I asked a dumb question: is that your son? She looked at him and said yes.
I asked her if she was waiting for someone, and she said yes, that her mother was supposed to meet them there soon. After I packed her car, I asked her if there was anything else I could do for her, and she said, no, but thanks for everything. I looked at them both and wanted to take them home with me and keep them safe. I said, ok, well, ok. Please take care of yourselves – take good care of yourself, and your son – will you do that?
And for some reason when she smiled at me for the last time, I seemed to understand everything she’d been through. And I knew that not only would she move the earth to keep her son close to her, she would gladly lay her life down for him. Within her beautiful smile, I saw extreme happiness and hope. I sensed that they’d have a hard road before them, but I felt strength coming through her that reached beyond her young years.
I got back into my car, and drove away. For the rest of the day, I thought about her and her son, and about why we were placed upon each other’s paths. I wondered why our worlds happened to brush up against each other, and I was thankful for it. Perhaps I made the mistake of assumption, by placing her within a romantic persona of the dispossessed. But sometimes, folks…someone is set apart purposely from the crowd, and placed before us.
On this ordinary Saturday at Shaws, amid the chatter of impatient shoppers complaining of slow lines and the rustle of paper or plastic, the Holy Spirit swept away all of the noise and the press of people, and created a quiet moment between the three of us. So I believe that in our lives, we’re all given less than a second to make an important decision, and to follow directions, no matter how hard we may resist them from inside. I don’t know what else to say.