I didn't have time to do my weekly shopping trip last weekend and ended up going to the grocery store alone at 9 pm last night - a time I never shop.
The store had an open, casual vibe. Several foreign languages floated by me and I felt like the only tired one, plodding down the aisles, as shoppers casually conversed with sons and daughters. The foreign speaking children were well behaved and in a good mood. The boys stocking the shelves were pleasant and conversational as they wheeled their pallets around on big dollies. The store felt more like an event than the place I normally dread to go with crammed aisles and shouting mothers during busy weekend days.
In my travels around the store I crossed paths several times with a very handsome young father and his small son, about five years old, who chattered happily around him, or clung to him like a Koala. They spoke Spanish. I smiled once, then avoided eye contact because this guy was so handsome that I was certain he was used to women flirting with him and I didn't want my friendliness to be mistaken for flirtation.
I finally headed to one of the checkout lanes and started loading up the conveyor belt. As I worked I could not help noticing there was a bit of a commotion in the lane next to mine. A manager had come over and there was a discussion about what to do. The handsome young father was on the phone speaking Spanish with a forced calmness as the manager and clerk discussed who was available to return all of his purchases to the shelves. He could not pay for his food.
Several times his little boy took, and had taken away, a candy bar. He was hungry. Distracted by the phone call and the activity at the check-out, the grownups didn't notice that he finally got that candy bar open and started eating it. When the clerk saw it half gone she said in a loud voice to the father, "Did you pay for that?" Still on the phone, his eyes opened wide. He started reaching for his wallet.
Just about 20 years ago, when we were losing our home, I stood one evening in a grocery store in Bloomfield, NJ trying to think of a way to make $40 feed eight people for a week. It was among the hardest moments of my life—knowing that the children in bed at home would want more than I could give them, in spite of how hard I worked to get a job and how much I did with my resources. I was in the place where people tell you, "It will all work out. It always does," because they have nothing else to say. They don't consider that for thousands of homeless women and children it does NOT always work out. There are no guarantees, no matter how many times people tell you, "It always works out."
That shopping trip 20 years ago was branded on my memory. I know that the most desperate feeling you can have is the knowledge that your child will be hungry.
I didn't speak in Spanish to him, but I understood the young father, and during the course of my checkout I heard him say into the phone, "I don't have anything for breakfast." That's when I knew the cupboards were bare. Even one piece of bread would be "something for breakfast" when times are hard.
"I can pay. I have $10 on my card," he offered, as I took a dollar out of my wallet and gave it to his cashier for the candy bar. When I gave it to his son, I quietly said, "I can give you more. How much do you need?" He refused my help. And that was fine. But my quiet gesture will stay with him as a reminder that the world is sprinkled with people who care.
I wrote this poem thinking of others who are not as they appear. The stigma of no money, extreme beauty, or a less-than-perfect appearance, fades away when you really look at someone. I offer it here now, thinking of the young father. A stunningly handsome young man on the receiving end of disdain when his account was unexpectedly empty. Even still, it was not his handsome appearance, nor his financial dilemma, but his gentle love for his son that I saw in him.
The Light in You
I see the light in you.
That flesh and blood and bones and clothes
that hair and skin and fat... or thin...
don’t matter much to me.
I see the light in you.
So hold your apologies
‘bout the car you don’t own or the heavy loan
or the foreclosed home...
Those aren’t what I see.
I see the light in you.
I don’t really notice that EKG blinkin’ or low IV beepin’
Yeah, that hospital room is a long way from
where you’d like to be...
but it’s not what I see.
So sweetie, don’t think twice.
There’s nothing as nice as taking a bird’s eye view of life.
The big picture is the truth of you — That sets you free!
So don’t worry about the way you look
‘cause I see the light in you
when you look at me.