It was one of those days, still vivid in my memory after 25 years. At the time we had two children, ages 3 and 18 months. The toddler started this particular day by ransacking the kitchen garbage and strewing it across the living room carpet. An hour later, the 3-year old hammered his little sister’s head with a wooden mallet because it left such a cool red mark on her bald scalp. Did Ozzie and Harriet have days like this?
My husband Peter was working four days a week in Boston while the kids and I remained in Connecticut. This was before the era of cell phones and laptops and telecommuting. In his absence, I felt like a zombie in an exhausted haze.
On the day in question, I packed up the kids after nap time and headed to the grocery store. We made our way through the aisles as the kids prattled on with childish questions. Why is that lady so short? Does every child have a daddy? Will God heal that man in the wheelchair? Can we buy Breakfast with Barbie cereal? (Yes, such a cereal actually existed. And no, we did not buy it.)
By the time we reached the checkout lane, I was ready for this excursion to be over. The line was long and slow, but the children were remarkably tolerant.
When it was finally my turn, I placed our groceries on the conveyor belt as the kids clambered to get out of the cart.
That’s when I noticed that the teenager ringing up my order was glowering at me. “What’s the price of this ketchup?” she barked irritably, shoving the bottle at my face. “I’m not sure,” I stammered. “Maybe $1.89?” “Well, why did you pick an item with no price tag on it? Now someone has to go get the price, and you’re holding up the line!”
I stood there awkwardly, blinking hard but determined to not cry. Why did she have to be so mean?
After a near eternity, an employee returned with the price. I paid the clerk and headed swiftly away from the unpleasant encounter.
We were almost at the exit when 18-month-old Meredith broke loose from my grasp and ran toward the open automated door. The door’s sensor mechanism did not register such a small child so Meredith was knocked to the floor as it closed.
Meredith wailed, more from surprise and indignation than pain. I hurried toward her but an older gentleman reached her first, scooping her up and setting her back on her feet. She stared at him briefly, then scampered into my arms.
“I heard how that clerk spoke to you,” the gentleman said, turning to me. “It was uncalled for. You responded with remarkable restraint.”
That did it. His kind words dissolved me into a torrent of tears as I buried my face into the neck of my errant toddler. “I’ll help you to your car,” he mumbled, pushing the cart while I carried the kids.
The gentleman helped load the sacks into the trunk and then headed on his way. “Thank you!” I called after him. He just waved.
In the years since that incident, I’ve often stopped to help a stranger in need. It might be reaching an item on a high shelf at a store, holding open a door, offering water on a sweltering day or stopping to help a young mom whose baby is squalling. When my kids were teenagers, they were always mortified by such actions. “Mom!” the kid would seethe, “You’re embarrassing me! Do you have to help everybody in the world?”
And I would smile, remembering a quiet gentleman at Stop & Shop who was not embarrassed to help a small child and her blubbering mother.
Once you’ve been on the receiving end of kindness, I always explained, you can no longer walk on by.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.