I belong to an organic produce cooperative. Every other week, I pick up a box of fruit and vegetables at the home of a woman who lives about seven minutes away. I like to take my 22-month old son, Eddie, because in her backyard, the woman has a rabbit in a cage. I usually grab my box of produce, and pluck out two carrots: one for Eddie and one to him to feed the rabbit. Eddie usually winds up eating both.
The woman lives two blocks from our local supermarket so I sometimes stop there on our way home, which is what I did the other day. But as often happens, while I went in for broccoli, I came out with a shopping cart full of groceries. About halfway through, Eddie’s patience began to wane, and I started handing him things to buy myself a little more time. By the time we got to the register, there was a helium Santa balloon attached to our cart, Eddie was carrying a Sponge Bob candy cane, and he’d already finished off half a dozen strawberries, a red bell pepper, and a coconut and chocolate granola bar. A smart woman would probably have taken the child straight home after that. Me, I’m a hopeless thrift store shopper, and my babysitter told me our local Habitat for Humanity store had Christmas decorations. I couldn’t resist. I decided to stop there on our way home.
The last time I was in Habitat for Humanity, a salesgirl scolded me for allowing Eddie to roam freely in the store. He likes to paw things, mostly glass things. The items don’t cost much, but no one likes to hear glass shatter, even in a thrift store. This time, I made sure Eddie was close by. I kept handing him soft things, like little stuffed animals, thinking idle hands touch glass.
As I scoured the bins for unique ornaments, Eddie sat on a couch reading a book about a Christmas tree. But he soon grew bored and got down and began to roam through the store. I quickly put down the ornaments I was holding and ran after him. I found another couch in front of a VHS machine that was playing Winnie the Pooh. I sat Eddie on the couch, and I showed great enthusiasm for the video playing. Eddie began to watch. I stood there for about a minute to make sure he was sufficiently engaged. I then slipped off to do some more shopping. A minute later, I looked over and saw Eddie was standing over the VHS machine pressing all of the buttons until the tape popped out. By the time I got there, the carriage that ejects the tape was moving in and out of the machine like a cuckoo clock, and the tape was nowhere to be found.
I tried carrying Eddie in my arms as I moved around the store, but he kept squirming to get down. I finally gave up on shopping and brought my basket of ornaments and a piece of fabric I’d found up to the register. There were two people already in line so I placed Eddie on the floor and put my basket on the counter. Eddie made a beeline for some glass ashtrays that were on a coffee table behind us. I ran after him. I tried to carry him back to the register, but he simply would not be carried, so I let him wander around the front of the store while I followed close behind. I kept glancing over at the register to see whether it was my turn to pay.
After about 10 minutes, I picked Eddie up and walked over to the register to see why it was taking so long to reach my turn. I realized everyone had been cutting in front of me, presumably because I wasn’t there to defend my rightful place in line. I turned to the woman who was now at the register and said, “I was next.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said in a flat, unapologetic as tone. “Well, you weren’t standing here.”
“I wasn’t standing here because I was chasing my child around the store so he wouldn’t break anything,” I said.
“Oh. Well, I’m sorry about that,” she said.
She didn’t sound sorry at all. And so I told her so. “You don’t sound sorry,” I said.
“Oh, I am. I have five children of my own. I know what it’s like,” she said.
She continued to place her purchases on the counter in front of the cashier, with the hesitation of someone driving through a “Yield” sign.
“Well, I can see you’re very sympathetic,” I said.
Eddie was now squirming, trying to get out of my arms. I wasn’t surprised. I was setting a fine example in the art of getting along with people.
“You’re obviously having a stressful day. I hope your day gets better,” the woman said. Her tone was to sincerity what saccharine is to sugar.
The woman had kinky blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses and looked a bit weathered. I would loved to have written her off as a kook except her friend had just gotten in line behind me with a big pile of books, all of them great, literary choices — the kind of choices only an educated person would make. I was disappointed. I figured if crazy was friends with someone with that kind of taste, she couldn’t be a kook.
By the time I got to the register, I felt like a pariah. The only thing worse than having an argument with someone in public is doing it in a charitable place like Habitat for Humanity. It’s like yelling at a nun or cutting off an ambulance.
The cashier began tallying up my purchases. I had about 25 ornaments, each priced differently, forcing the cashier to pick every one of them up, scan it for its price tag, and then ring it up. I was certain she hated me. She then lifted up the vinyl Christmas tablecloth I’d found. She opened it up and began looking on both sides of it for a price tag. She eventually asked me if I knew how much it was. I didn’t.
“Give it to her,” said the store manager, who was standing next to the cashier. “For having to wait so long.”
Perhaps they didn’t view me as a pariah after all.
Another woman behind the counter then asked if Eddie wanted a children’s book. I asked if they had one about Chanukah. She ran over to the book section and scanned the shelves but came back empty handed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, but then handed Eddie a book about a Christmas tree that he’d not only seen already when he was sitting on the couch but had torn the plastic fastener you could snap to hold the book closed.
“Oh, he liked that one,” I said.
I picked him up and grabbed my packages. As I approached the exit, the woman with the kinky blonde hair was standing at the door.
“Here, I’ll get that for you,” she said, stretching her arm out awkwardly to hold open the door.
“Thank you,” I said.
As I walked out, our eyes met, and for a brief moment we both got a little teary-eyed, as we empathized about the frustrations of motherhood and felt bad about any hardship we had caused each other.