Mark and I were just finishing our quick shopping trip and making our way to one of the express lanes at the grocery store, when I noticed her. A young African-American woman in the next line with half a cartload of groceries, waiting her turn. Clearly more than twenty items! Usually, I would think to myself (or even whisper to Mark) on the rudeness of sliding through the express lane with such a huge load of cargo. But that day, I didn’t see a rude woman; I saw a tired woman. Someone in a hurry to just get home for the day.
As we began to place our items on the counter, I glanced back at the woman. She had two young children beside her, and a baby on her hip. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes spoke of the raw fatigue that she must slog through every day. I have known those times myself, and my heart broke for her.
I felt a nudge inside me, a command. One that I couldn’t push aside. “Mark, I want to pay for her groceries.” Mark turned toward her slowly, then turned back to look me in the eyes. “I’m serious,” I said. He asked if she had started her transaction, and when I said she hadn’t, he handed me our debit card.
I was so excited. For about two seconds. Then I was nervous. My heart felt like it would pound out of my chest! I began to second-guess myself. I began to ask why on earth I was doing this!
Then I worried about the mother. What if I embarrassed her? What if I offended her? What if she thought I was trying to make some statement? I mean, some random white lady is going to buy her groceries for her? Oh. I began to imagine the scene – her protesting her offense, me trying my best to apologize. I nearly panicked. And just as I was about to call this whole plan off, another child – a young girl of about twelve — approached the mother, lifted the baby from her hip, and placed the baby on her own hip. Mama’s little helper. She looked weary, too.
Well, that did it. I was all in.
When the mother was busy placing her items on the counter, I sidled up to the cashier and said, “Miss, I don’t know this next customer of yours, and I’m not sure why I’m doing this, but I want to pay for her groceries. May I do that?” The young gal said, “Um, yeah. Sure.” She let a tiny grin spread through the confused look on her face and proceeded to scan the grocery items.
I stepped back and waited, wondering how this would all play out. I decided that the smoothest way to do this would be to quietly keep the mother from being able to pay. I stepped up to the credit card machine in front of the cashier, asked if I could swipe my card right now. “Sure,” she said. The mother never t even noticed me!
The last item to be scanned was a single pack of M&M’s that I guessed would be shared among the three children. When the cashier had placed the last item in the bag, the mother reached into her wallet to pay. That’s when I stepped back up to the counter to sign for my credit card payment. With a quick glance at her, I said, “Actually, I’ve got this.” Beside me, I heard her ask quietly, “Wait … what? Um … what?” The cashier handed me my receipt, and I turned to the mother and said, “I was told to pay for your groceries today.” Her mind was still catching up to what was happening, and her look of confusion changed to the most lovely smile. “That’s so sweet! You’re so sweet!” Then, as if she didn’t know what else to do, she carefully approached me for a hug. I readily accepted, and we just clung to each other for a moment.
When I stepped back, I told her to be blessed today. “You, too,” she said. I turned to walk away, and realized I had the receipt. “Do you need this? You know, in case you have to return something.”
“Oh, no … I don’t need a thing!” She beamed at me. She looked like a different person.
I turned and left, and nearly danced out of the store.
Mark was waiting for me and had enjoyed watching the whole thing. He saw things that I didn’t – the faces of the children and the cashier. The mother embracing me. The look on my face. And he reminded me that my simple gesture could bless more than just that mother. The cashier would surely tell that story. The mother, too, would share what happened.
We were both reminded that day of what can happen if we take the time to look at people not with our eyes but with our hearts. Instead of a rude customer in the express lane, we can see a tired mother. Instead of our own tight budget, we can see the needs of others and simple ways to meet those needs. Instead of differences between us, we can see how we’re all alike in some way. And if we act on what we see, we can touch the world from our own neighborhood.