The Kindness of Strangers

In keeping with the stereotypes about youngest children being portable by necessity, I suppose it’s no surprise that many of my memories of Lucy take place in grocery stores.

When she was little and we lived in Argentina, we did our weekly shopping as a family because wrangling three small children on our day off was a two-person task. We would use two shopping carts, one for Ellie and Scott, which Nate would push, sometimes picking up necessary items and sometime just playing games to keep them occupied. I would push the cart with Lucy, often getting separated from the others as I systematically filled the cart with everything on my grocery list. Lu was a little cherub, complete with a cap of blonde hair and big blue eyes, and she drew a lot of attention. Argentine’s adore babies, and a toddler who looks like the Gerber baby was a show-stopper for them. Strangers approached us at least three or four times on every trip to the store. They wanted to talk to Lu about what was in her cart or comment on her button nose. They wanted to gush over her blue eyes or squeeze her fat fingers. I was pretty used to this kind of behavior. It had been the same with Ellie and Scott, both of whom bestowed smiles on strangers like they were royals on parade.

Lu was having none of it. To call her shy doesn’t do it justice. Though she had outgrown her baby habit of screaming in terror every time she saw a man in a hat, she was still very suspicious of strangers, even at a distance. When they came up close, she literally froze. Some sweet old lady would stop me to comment on her beautiful hair. Thank you, I’d say, as Lu sat tense and unmoving in the shopping cart. What’s your name, hermosa? the grandmother would ask. Lucy would slowly lower her head and stare fixedly at the ground. I’d answer the question and try to excuse us and get away, but no matter how determined the visitor was to keep talking or what sweet thing they said, Lucy would play dead until they walked away.

I won’t deny that I found this behavior hilarious. But I also felt bad for my sweet little introvert. She just wanted to tag along with her mama, and these weird, kind strangers insisted on intruding into her personal space.

When Lu was two, we moved back to Indianapolis. When she was three, her brother started Kindergarten, so it was just the two of us all day at home. We ran a lot of errands together, and she was a wonderful shopper. She would chat to me as we went in and out of different places, and she had endless patience for stores, as long as we walked down the Barbie aisle and the shoe aisle at least once. We didn’t need to buy anything, but looking was the price of her cheerful companionship. It was a price I was happy to pay.

One day about halfway through that year, we were in Target together picking up a few things (you know how you do), and we were just taking our usual pass at the pink toy aisle, when a friend called me crying. It was an important call, a truly horrible moment for my friend, so I pulled the cart out of the traffic flow and listened to her crisis. Unfortunately, Lucy had a question for me at a just that moment, and while she might have had endless patience for shopping, she had zero patience for Mommy ignoring her questions. She got louder and louder and crankier, as I tried to gesture that I’d just be a minute and maybe fumble a snack out of my purse. Just when she was ramping up to a full-on tantrum, which I could not deal with while on this call, a stranger approached us.

She was a sweet middle-aged lady, and she did not give me a look of judgment for being on my cell phone while my daughter screamed in the Target aisle. She just started asking Lucy questions. Lucy froze. She wasn’t quite as shy as she had been before, but she wasn’t going to show the weakness of tears in front of this stranger, either. The lady asked her which of the toys was her favorite. Lucy did not deign to answer. The lady pointed out which toy she liked best, and Lucy couldn’t help but smile. Amazed at this miracle worker, I turned all my attention back to my phone call. When it finally ended, I hung up and listened to my daughter explaining the merits of Hello Kitty hair bows to a stranger.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “I really had to take that call…”

Before I could even explain, the woman smiled and said, “My pleasure. You both have a wonderful day.” And then she walked away.

The kindness of strangers, you guys.

The same kindness we had once found so intrusive was a lifesaver that day. The kindness of a stranger who didn’t just smile sympathetically and walk by but actually stepped in and made things better.

Maybe the kindness of others is scary and overwhelming sometimes, but maybe it’s also exactly what we need. At the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between stepping in and intruding, except in how it’s received.

I hope I’m learning to accept the kindness that comes my way, even when I didn’t ask for it. I hope my daughter is learning the same thing.

I’m pretty sure we’re both going to need it.

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