Have you ever gone to the grocery store and wandered the aisles, nagged by the feeling that there’s something you need…but you just don’t know what? Two days ago, that was me. By trip’s end, though, I took away more than a cartful of groceries.
I found something I didn’t even know I needed.
Once a week, or when thrift outweighs convenience, I shop at a discount grocery store. It’s not the cleanest, they don’t carry all my favorite brands, the produce is hit or miss, and it’s an extra ten-minute drive. But you can’t beat the prices on the staples, especially milk, eggs, bread, peanut butter, and bananas. (That’s important because my strapping, hollow-legged son is home from college and my 15-year-old rivals him in size. The two of them put away a gallon of milk, six eggs, a dozen bananas, and countless peanut butter sandwiches by lunch.)
On this day, I was a reluctant shopper. Begrudging the time spent (don’t we always prefer the work we’re not doing to the task at hand?), my mind was cycling down a pessimistic path. Work, money, schools, this kid, that kid. All my worries hopped on for the ride. Negativity and discouragement filled my thoughts faster than the groceries filled my basket.
Just past the produce, in front of the doughnuts, I saw them: a mom with five kids, ages 12 down to about 3, I guessed. As a mom of seven, I tend to notice other moms with a passel of kids, especially lively, energetic kids. (Someone once told me that women relate in “same-same” mode, meaning we connect with other women by discovering what we share in common. “Me too. The same with me,” creates an instant bond.) Normally I would smile as I passed by and say something encouraging. Not this time, I’m embarrassed to say.
Their presence broke through my gloom only long enough for me to note three things: there were a lot of them (kids, that is), they seemed happy enough, and their clothes looked worn and many seasons old, suggesting money was tight. I hoped they’d get their doughnuts.
As one of ten kids growing up on a professor’s small salary during the inflationary Carter years, I remember gratefully my mom’s willingness to splurge for occasional treats. A doughnut or pack of gum was a treat, even if divided ten ways. In fact, we older ones grew up assuming that every stick of gum ought to be split in two and shared. Didn’t everyone do that? Five sticks to a pack back then…of course we’d share. Buy two packs of gum? Extravagant!
Maneuvering through the aisles, I glimpsed the mom and her kids a few more times. In the pasta aisle, the kids bunched around mom as she gestured over the options. What’ll it be tonight? Spaghetti? Rotini? I marveled that the kids didn’t seem to be the bickering sort. Restless kids and endless aisles make for trouble where I come from.
I felt a pang of guilt. Usually, as part of my small, personal prayer mission, I pray silently for people as I notice them in the grocery store. I pray for their unknown burdens, their inner struggles, and (for moms of little kids) for patience and peace as they shop. Weighed down by my own problems on this day, I hadn’t done that.
But awareness–plus guilt—does motivate. I prayed for them then, in that moment, asking God’s blessing on them and for patience and kindness to fill the mother’s heart. Then I moved on.
Bread, bagels, done. My inner storm was beginning to blow over as I headed for the checkout. Almost outa here. By the time my order was half checked through, another woman lined up behind me, and the mom and kids wheeled into the third spot in our checkout lane. (That’s another drawback of the discount grocery. Never enough checkers.)
As the checkout lady scanned, I glanced behind me. The five kids were still happy, older ones hovering over young ones as they waited to unload their cart. The mom of five included me in her smile as she chatted with the woman between us.
Only then did I notice her funny head covering. From afar, I thought she wore a bandanna. Up close, I realized she wore one of those soft wraps that cancer patients use to cover their scalps after their hair falls out.
Its significance instantly zapped my own magnified worries down to size. Car repairs, paperwork, tuition payments…they were nothing compared to whatever this woman was facing. The woman behind me asked the mom of five a question, which I couldn’t hear. But her reply was clear.
“I had brain surgery last month…But the hair’s starting to grow back in already.” She lifted a corner of the head wrap and, sure enough, light brown stubble was visible on a scalp recently shaved.
This woman’s reality delivered a strong dose of perspective, a new perspective in fact. As moms of many, we were “same-same.” As moms facing personal challenges, we were not even close. The ordinary stress of taking five young kids to the grocery store would tax most of us. Money seemed to be a problem and she needed brain surgery on top of that. But she seemed peaceful…even grateful.
It was an unexpected word that came to mind. Grateful? Why would she be grateful? The burdens she must be carrying…
I didn’t know the half of it. A moment later, the conversation continued–brief words about her treatment, recovery, and concern for her kids. And then, she spoke softly.
“But I’m just glad to be alive, you know? My sister was killed last month. A car accident. Her daughter was in the car with her and she’s still not better. Never missed a day of school and now been out for a month. But my sister, she was killed.” She shook her head, smiled a half-smile, and said again, softly but firmly. “I’m just glad to be alive.”
She was alive—and glad for that.
Undoubtedly this mom had struggled at first with the news of her own illness, her worries over caring for the kids and paying for her treatment. But the tragic loss of her sister reframed her own losses. It gave her the gift of perspective, and the resilience that follows from that.
And she, in turn, gave me that same gift: a new perspective.
Shelving my own (now miniscule) worries, I wanted to talk with her, to ask a million questions, to know more about her story. What sustained her? Did she have faith? Support from a husband or family or church? How will she help her children see their own difficulties and losses from the same grateful perspective?
But there was no time for that.
“Ma’am? Ma’am? Slide your card, please.”
Time to pay. (What is the price of “fresh perspective,” anyway?)
Awkward now, because I was rushed, I sensed I owed something to this mom. I wanted to do something for her and her children, to acknowledge the sudden clarity she brought to my own troubles. And to say “thanks” for the gift she did not even know she had given.
But as I paused to find words, the moment was gone. In two seconds flat, the checker rushed me through–a funny time to be speedy–and pushed my cart towards the door. The noise and commotion precluded further conversation.
I could only catch her eye as I left, smile, and pray fervently for her and her children.
I came shopping for food that day, but left with much more. The difficulties that weighed on my spirit when I entered that store are still very real.
But so is the gratitude borne of perspective.
(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson