Last night, I was at the grocery store picking up a few items for the kid’s lunches. As I made my way to the cash register, I chose to get in line behind a man and a young girl about 10 years old who was pushing a cart of groceries. A baby boy, no more than 14 months old, was strapped safely in the grocery cart.
The girl had a notebook in her hand and was marking off the grocery items in her cart, one by one. I assumed that the girl and the baby boy were with the man in front of the line but as he finished his transaction, he left the store briskly. The little girl began to unload the groceries, one by one, taking special care with the fragile items like the bread and eggs. The baby in the cart began to squirm and protest. The young girl whispered something into his ear to which he responded by smiling at her and settling down quickly. I marveled at her maturity and continued to watch her. I could not ignore the tiny mom alarm that started to quietly buzz inside my head.
Glancing around, I scanned the area for an adult that might be making his or her way back to the cash register. I reassured myself that this little girl’s parent had likely instructed her to get in line and unload the groceries while they grabbed a few more items. I’ve done that before myself. Thomas likes to help at the grocery store and would have enjoyed the opportunity for some extra responsibility. The baby boy, who was facing me from his position in the grocery cart, looked up and smiled revealing four little white teeth. I smiled back and made a funny face that he found hysterical, laughing a sweet little baby belly laugh.
As the little girl emptied the last item from her cart, she pulled out a $50 gift card, one single blank check and handed them to the cashier. I glanced around, more frantically this time, searching for a mom rushing down the aisle, yelling, “I’m coming, just a second”. I quickly scanned the faces of all the men around me, hoping her dad would race up to the register apologizing because he left his wallet in the car.
Suddenly, my mom radar was in over-drive. I was keenly aware of the fact that this young girl appeared to be all alone, with a baby, a cart of groceries, a gift card and a blank check. I began to notice that every single adult in the general vicinity was in tune with what was happening. The cashier stopped scanning items, the bagger stopped loading groceries, the woman behind me craned her neck to see around my shoulder, my heart sped up a bit and we all grew silent as we slowly began to process what was happening and search for answers or possible solutions.
I’m not one to judge and I usually take in all the information before jumping to conclusions. In my line of work, we face crisis situations often and I’ve learned that it is always best to stop, think and search for information before acting. There are always two sides to the story and I like to give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe her dad was in the bathroom, sick and needs some help. Perhaps her mom was waiting in the car because she is agoraphobic and scared to enter the store. Maybe her grandmother was next door getting a pedicure and the little girl offered to help with the groceries before the store closed. I remained silent as my brain scanned through all of the possible reasons why a 10 year old girl would be sent into a grocery store with a baby, a gift card and a blank check.
Reluctantly, the cashier scanned the gift card and deducted the $50 from the total bill which was somewhere around $85. I watched her reach for the blank check, read the front, flip it over, flip it over again and then turn slowly to call for the store manager. I shuffled my feet nervously, feeling the urge to step in and do something, anything. Should I ask the little girl where her parents are? The manager arrived seconds later and I watched her put on her reading glasses, reach for the check, read the front, flip it over, then flip it over again. Slowly the manager lifted her head, peered over her glasses and squinted at the girl. At this point my mom radar was sounding off as loud as a fire alarm and I edged my way toward the child.
The manager pursed her lips tightly together, exhaled and said, “Honey, even if your mom was here, I would ask to see her ID.” She looked down at the blank check and said, “I’m pretty sure you are not (insert mother’s name here), so I can’t accept this check.”
Crestfallen, the little girl reached into her pocket, pulled out a smartphone and said, “I can call my mom for you. I have her cell phone.”
The manager replied, “Honey, if you have her cell phone then how will you reach her? Is she not here?”
The little girl turned to me, her forehead wrinkled in the middle with concentration, maybe worry, maybe panic, I’m not quite sure which and said, “I’m sorry this is taking so long. If I had known, I would have let you go first.”
At that very moment, the adults, that had been quietly observing what was taking place, began to speak all at once. The manager, cashier and bagger gathered in a tight huddle and began to whisper to one another. I heard two adults behind me say something about the baby being left with a 10 year old. The woman in the line next to us whispered that she was impressed with the little girl’s maturity.
I could not contain myself anymore. I reached out to the young girl, touched her shoulder and ran my hand through the ends of her hair, like us moms do sometimes when we are talking to children. “Sweetheart you are doing a fantastic job. You have done nothing wrong.”
She smiled shyly at me and then turned back to face the store manager, who was still peering over her reading glasses. The manager glanced at me, and without words, she knew what I was thinking and what every other adult was thinking at that time. This little girl was in a difficult situation, none of us had all of the information and most importantly, it was not her fault.
“Honey, come with me.” the manager said.
The bagger placed the groceries back into the cart and the young girl began to wheel the baby and cart over to the information desk. The only sound was the beeping of the machine as my groceries were scanned. The cashier, the bagger, the lady behind me, we were all silenced by our thoughts. After purchasing my groceries, I lingered for several more minutes, watching from a distance as the manager spoke quietly to the little girl. Several employees had gathered around the information desk and were helping. One employee tickled the baby on his tummy, much to his chagrine. I fought the urge to run over and offer to help but from experience, having too much of an audience would have only drawn more attention to the young girl who was already embarrassed. Once I felt that there were enough people to help problem solve, I reluctantly left the store.
I could not sleep last night because I could not get those two children out of my head. I wish that I had stayed a little longer. Did the grown ups over-react? Perhaps there was a reasonable explanation, I’m not sure. The one thing I do know is that a group of adults stepped up last night, in a collaborative effort, to help a child in a difficult situation. I would like to think that as parents, we don’t judge one another too harshly. Moms and dads make decisions on a daily basis that impact our children. Sometimes we make fantastic decisions and sometimes we don’t. As a mother, I have discovered that my instincts are innate, they compel me to react, and they are never wrong. I think that it’s important for a community to take note of what is happening around us. We have to pay attention, we can’t ignore the alarms that go off in our heads especially when it comes to children. Remember, it takes a village to raise a child and last night, the village stood tall.