The might-have-beens

The other night, as I sat in the parking lot at Kroger texting a friend, there was a rap on the window.

A too-thin woman with graying, long, curly hair smiled apologetically.

I rolled down the window.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I’ve got three kids – and you can check this out for yourself because they’re sitting in that McDonald’s over there – they’re sitting just to the left of the door – but I had to leave my husband because he threw the 4-year-old across the room. I need $14 for a cab, and – ”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and gave her what I had, which was $10.

And then I pulled out, preparing to head to my Zumba class. On the way, I passed the McDonald’s. Impulsively, I pulled in.

Are there kids in there?

I got out of the car and wandered inside. There weren’t any kids. The McDonald’s was practically empty, save for a group of four adults.

Was I indignant? Angry?

Nope.

Why?

Because there might have been three kids in there, one of whom had been assaulted by his father.

Because that woman might have been someone who had summoned the courage to leave an abusive relationship.

And for me, that’s enough.

I was in an abusive relationship from age 15 (almost 16) until the day I fled town and transferred to another college to get away. I was once the kid … well, teenager … who got thrown across a bathroom and into the shower.

In my mid-20s, I volunteered at a Rape Crisis & Intervention Center/Battered Women’s Shelter in the Texas panhandle. Most memorable was the night I picked up a woman and several children from a  gas station parking lot. A police officer was there, and he was clearly impatient to be done with the family standing out front.

The woman didn’t speak English. She had four … maybe five? … children. They were likely a migrant family, as the town I lived in was home to hundreds of people who flocked there each year to help harvest corn, cotton, soybean and any number of other crops.

I drove a two-seater Isuzu pickup. Somehow, however, we managed to get everyone crammed inside. The youngest child, a toddler, sat on the floorboard at his mother’s feet.

I dropped them off at the shelter, filled out the necessary paperwork, and called for one of the counselors. And then I went home, to my snug little house and my dog, Molly, grateful to be independent, on my own, and not living in fear.

I grew up as a privileged white kid. I had no idea what that woman’s background was, but, having written newspaper stories about the migrant families in that part of Texas, I had a pretty good idea of what she was up against.

And that, my friends, is why I freely handed over $10 to a woman the other night who may or may not have had three traumatized children.

Because she might have been in the same situation I once had to flee.

And I might have been the one who gave her what she needed in cab fare to get away from her abuser.

Several years ago, after a day at the pool, the kids and I stopped at Jason’s Deli to get takeout.

Since the kids were still wet and in bathing suits, I told them to wait in the car. On my way in, a tall woman with elegant features stopped me in the parking lot.

I don’t remember what her circumstances were, only that she wanted to know if I would buy her a salad.

“Sure,” I said, and we went inside.

While I waited for my takeout order, she meticulously assembled a salad. Then she asked the cashier for an extra cup for water.

On her way out, she thanked me, explaining that her father was in the car and that she was going to share the salad with him.

When I left a few minutes later, she and an elderly man were huddled together in a four-door sedan, sharing that salad. We exchanged waves as I drove by.

What I’ve learned over the years, however, is that it isn’t the money or food that means the most to those who ask us for help.

It’s being heard. It’s being treated kindly. It’s the human interaction.

So many people live in the shadows or on the fringes of our society. When they venture out, it means the world to them to be able to converse with a friendly stranger. Or to be treated with dignity.

I felt compelled to share this story because of the extraordinary time we now find ourselves in. It’s so, so important to hold on to what makes us decent and human.

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