I want to tell you about something that made me feel sad and frustrated.
Recently, a friend and I stopped by a nearby drugstore to pick up some evening supplies–beer, some ice cream, chips and some candy. The Benedicts were having a small, impromptu party after a very pleasant dinner with friends and colleagues. I was in a terrific mood. Too often our evenings are such that they have little variety, and I was looking forward to some spontaneous fun. (That’s my favorite kind of fun.)
The drugstore is bright and quite new. Definitely the shiniest thing to grace the tiny town nearest our home in a very long time. Why a drugstore? Well, isn’t that what’s being built these days? Our population is aging. We take lots and lots of prescription drugs. And if we’re not taking prescription drugs, there are those other handy drugs: alcohol, sugar, and yummy salty things. So, a drugstore makes sense.
The place was busy for 8:00 on a Friday night. A lot of people were buying the same things we were, plus drugs. My friend, who was there just to buy beer, checked out before me and waited, patiently, while I dithered in the candy aisle.
I’d seen a little girl, maybe four years old, wandering around the store in the company of an eleven or twelve year-old girl, who I assumed was her sister. The little girl clutched a dollar and a package of gum.
“You can’t get that,” her big sister said. “You don’t have money for the tax.”
When I finally got into line, the little girl absent-mindedly stepped up to the counter, cutting ahead of me. She laid her money and gum on the counter. The older sister was nowhere in sight.
“I want this,” she said.
The clerk, a pale, pimply-faced young man of about twenty, rang it up.
“A dollar, six,” he said.
The little girl pushed the dollar toward him. He looked very uncomfortable.
“You need some more money.”
She pushed the dollar a little closer.
I could see the guy’s blood pressure go up. There were at least three more people in line behind me, and he was alone. But the little girl didn’t move. She didn’t even look at him–only at the gum. She wasn’t sullen. She didn’t look stubborn or resentful. She just stood there. Waiting.
“Let her have it,” I told the guy. “I’ll pay the tax.”
He looked at me as though I’d just told him that I’d performed lifesaving surgery on his best friend.
I told the little girl to tell her sister that the gum was paid for. I didn’t want there to be a scene. She wasn’t really paying attention, but, heck, she was four.
Now, if that had been my own child, there’s no way he would’ve gotten that gum if he’d gone into the store with only a dollar to spend. It would’ve been a teachable moment! Taxes! Responsible budgeting! An excellent life lesson! And I expect he would’ve found a tasty, cheaper replacement. Or he would’ve thrown a tantrum, in which case I would’ve picked his ass up and hauled him out of the store without any sort of treat. So, why did I make it so the little girl could get her gum? To move the line along. Plus, she was awfully cute in her pink jacket and tiny blue and white barrettes dotting her braids. Adorable. Did I want her to hear and learn the lesson about living within a budget? Yes, but she wasn’t my child. It would’ve looked inappropriate–and maybe even would’ve been inappropriate. People would’ve stared, thinking I was a busybody, and might even have thought I meant her harm. I was not her mother, teacher, aunt, or friend. Plus, my own friend was waiting.
I turned my attention to the cashier so I could check out. He thanked me. Really, it was seven cents. No big deal. Seriously. It made that tiny moment in all of our lives that much easier. No skin off my nose, as my dad says.
My patient friend and I went outside. We hadn’t reached the car yet, when I saw the little girl at the other end of the parking lot. She was standing on the corner of the walk that runs alongside the store, silhouetted in the streetlamp. She was alone.
“Mommy!” she yelled. “Mommy! Mommy!” She was definitely looking north–I’m guessing that’s from where she and her sister her had walked. She wasn’t crying, but she was definitely distressed. And loud.
I mumbled something to my friend about us having to do something, and called to her. I can’t tell you what trepidation I felt. It was a terrible situation. The safe thing for us to do would’ve been to get in the car and drive away. And I knew that was a possibility. But there’s no way I could’ve done it, and left her there, standing in the street-lighted darkness. I told her she needed to go back into the store to find her sister.
That child was so compliant. She came running to me at the entrance to the store. I didn’t take her hand or even touch her head. I was far too paranoid. I didn’t want to frighten her or–again–imply that I meant her harm. All the while, my friend–did I mention my friend was a guy?–hovered nearby, quiet. He was as concerned as I was. I knew he was thinking that we could only do this because I was a woman, and therefore slightly less suspect.
“Do you know where your sister is?” I asked her. She didn’t give me an answer or even look at me. She just stayed at my side.
I’d last seen the sister in the chips/ice cream section of the store. It had been a good five or six minutes since I’d seen her–or since she had laid eyes on the little girl. We found her in the same place.
God, I was angry. I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders, and look into her eyes and ask her if she knew what could’ve happened to the little girl. If she understood that someone could’ve simply stopped their car and picked up the little girl to toss her inside and drive away. I wanted to know if she understood that she might never have seen her sister again, and would have to live with that the rest of her life. I could see how young she was, and I knew that she probably didn’t have much of an understanding of those things. At eleven, I was a total bitch to my own little sisters. I’m ashamed to say that I made their lives hell when they were in my care. But I like to think that I at least wouldn’t have let them wander alone in a drugstore alone on a Friday night.
It’s because I’m an adult that I know these things. And so my anger should’ve been directed at the woman who lived north of the store with her children, and had sent them out with a dollar or two to the drugstore at eight o’clock at night.
Instead of screaming, I used my authoritative mommy voice. “Your sister was outside of the store by herself, calling for her mommy. She didn’t know where you were. You need to keep an eye on her.”
The girl, heavyset in her too-small jacket, glanced over at the rack of chips, then back at the little girl and me. But her eyes never changed. She had no reaction. No concern. Not even irritation. Her face was blank of emotion. It chilled me.
This time, I did touch the little girl. I put my hand on her back and pushed her gently toward her sister.
“You need to stay with your sister,” I said. “Don’t go outside by yourself.” And I fled.
I wanted to leave there. I wanted to get away. Mostly. What I really, really wanted to do was call child services. But you can’t charge an eleven year-old child with carelessness. And the mother? How many times did my own parents let the six year-old me walk almost a mile to and from school by myself, or go down to the pony keg (which was just a corner store) at dusk, with an equally young friend, to buy an ice cream? It was many, many years ago, of course, but it still held some risk. Now, we’re all more aware of the risks because of the media, and we have a better understanding of the long, long process of the development of reason and risk assessment capabilities in children. And we have big words for all that stuff.
I won’t speculate about the home life of those two girls. I really can’t know it. Maybe they have a wonderful mother. They were both dressed for the weather, and were appropriately groomed. Their shoes fit. They weren’t malnourished. Maybe this was a big trust experiment, to see if the big sister was responsible enough to take care of the little girl. Maybe they’d been looking forward to getting a dollar to take to the store on Friday evening all week. No. I really can’t know.
What I do know is how I felt when it was all done and we were on our way home. I felt pretty terrible. I felt a little guilty for having gotten involved at all. I had interfered and probably seemed bossy and overwrought. I felt like I was the interfering Nice White Lady from the old MAD TV sketches. I felt self-conscious about giving a damn. I can’t tell you the number of times, when my kids were young enough for playgrounds, that I tried to bring a parent’s attention to something truly dangerous–to himself and others–that his kid was doing, and for my interference got a cold stare or a mind-your-own-business.
But, on the other hand, I hope that someone would’ve done the same thing for one of my kids–not just because they’re my kids, but because every child’s life is precious.
Have you ever had to make that kind of choice? How did it feel?
(*Image: The Village, by Joan Miró)