Thursday, December 23, 2010

Waiting to Love

She greeted the clerk with a warm smile as she entered the department store. It had been a long day with her classroom of 19 energetic third-graders, and she was eager to get home. She just needed to pick up a baby shower gift, and she would be on her way. Her mouth watered with anticipation as she thought about the chicken and vegetables left simmering all day in the crock pot at home. She was ready to put her feet up for a bit and enjoy her dinner before heading to mid-week Bible study with her husband, Mike.

The shopper strode to the back of the store, glad for an opportunity to visit the baby department. She spied a rack of infant sleepwear and quickly selected a pale blue baby gown covered in soft brown puppy dogs. Mrs. Nelson will love this one, she thought, picturing the first-grade teacher's puppy-themed classroom. She picked up a khaki chenille blanket and plastic puppy rattle and headed back toward the front of the store.

Fishing a coupon from her purse, she slipped into the check-out line behind two other customers. An elderly gentleman collected his bags from the clerk as a young woman placed her merchandise on the counter. The young woman spoke in hushed tones to the baby strapped to her chest in a front carrier. The young mother's eyes looked tired -- I remember those days, the shopper thought wistfully. But even fatigued, the young woman was very pretty. She looked relaxed yet put-together in a coral-colored shirt -- shiny brown hair swept into a loose ponytail. Her porcelain skin bore no signs of age or worry, and her countenance was soft as she kissed the top of the infant's head.

The shopper smiled as she observed the mother and baby, her mind drifting to her own daughter. Carolyne and Mark would be coming down for Christmas, and she suspected they might have an announcement that would at last make her a grandmother. Her eyes twinkled at the possibility.

The shopper did not recognize the store clerk and thought she must be new. The red-head looked slightly uneasy behind the register as she scanned the young mother's first item.

Only now did the shopper notice the young woman's sizable pile on the counter -- an elegant selection of slacks, skirts and blouses, so much like the style Carolyne preferred. The young woman pulled a few more items out of her stroller: several dressy outfits for the baby; a pair of pink toddler shoes;  and a pretty stone bracelet.

The young mother offered an apologetic smile to the shopper standing behind her in line, which the woman returned with a reassuring shrug.

The clerk blushed as she fumbled with a few of the items, struggling to remove an anti-theft tag from one of the garments. "Do you have any coupons?" she asked the young mother.

"No, I don't," the young woman replied with a sigh.

"Are you sure? No value dollars or store coupons?"

"I'm afraid not."

The shopper surveyed the young mother's sizable pile of merchandise, then looked down at the three small items she clutched. Clearing her throat, she spoke: "I have a coupon she can use."

Surprised, the young woman protested, "Oh, no, you don't have to do that."

"That's all right, Dear," said the shopper. "You are welcome to use my coupon." She extended her hand, offering the coupon to the clerk.

The clerk scanned the coupon for the grateful young mother, but said the discount could only be applied with the use of an in-store credit card. "Do you have an account?" the clerk asked hopefully. When the young mother explained that her card had been dormant for a couple of years, the clerk suggested they reopen the account, adding, "It should only take about five minutes for the computer to process the request."

The young mother turned to the shopper, embarrassed for another delay to slow the purchase.

"That's all right," the shopper said before the young woman could speak. "I don't mind waiting."

Minutes passed as the computer stalled and had to be re-booted. After several tries, the transaction was finally complete -- generous discount applied. "Thank you so much," the young mother said to the shopper as she loaded her bags into the stroller.

"You are very welcome," the shopper replied, placing her shower gifts on the counter.

The young mother pushed her stroller toward the exit, but as she neared the door, the shopper noticed that one of her items had fallen out of the bag. "Oh!" she gasped, chasing the young woman to the exit. "Dear, you dropped this."

Something washed over the young mother's face as she took the bracelet -- relief? gratitude? sadness? The shopper could not read her expression. The young woman stared at the bracelet, fingering the smooth stones for a moment before whispering her thanks. The shopper offered one last reassuring smile before returning to the counter to complete her purchase. But she turned back just in time to watch the young mother step out of the store, a single tear shimmering on her cheek in the afternoon sunlight.


Perhaps I have told this story from the wrong perspective. In truth, I actually know very little about the shopper who stood in the back of the line and much more about the young mother with whom she shared her coupon. You see, that young mother was my sister. And what that benevolent shopper did not know -- what she could not have known -- was how deeply her kindness touched our family.

Jennifer entered the store that day physically and emotionally drained after keeping vigil at our mother's bedside in the hospital the night before. She had packed so hurriedly for the trip to Alabama that she did not have enough clothes to last the week. The bracelet she nearly left behind -- its strands of pretty stone beads attached to a silver tag engraved with the word "strength" -- replaced a broken, nearly identical bracelet she had bought to commemorate her trip to visit Mother during her treatment for multiple myeloma in Salt Lake City.

Jennifer struggled to keep her composure as she shopped that day, filling her stroller with clothes without even pausing to try anything on. What she did not reveal to anyone in the store -- what she could not share, lest the dam break and her tears flow -- was that our mother had died the night before. Jennifer was buying clothes to wear to her funeral.

In the refuge of our parents' home, my sister broke down as she recounted this story to me. Through her kindness, this loving stranger unknowingly mothered Jennifer through one of the most difficult errands of her life. I am so thankful that in that most difficult moment, this woman demonstrated patience and extended her hand in generosity. She may never know how her tenderness soothed my sister's broken heart.

I share this story today -- a busy, errand-filled, hurry-scurry day -- to remind us that we cannot know the burdens carried, the challenges faced or the wounds suffered by the strangers we meet each day. Or how much comfort our simplest acts of kindness might bring.

When Jennifer unpacked her shopping bags at my parents' home that day, she discovered that she had misplaced the pretty little pink shoes she purchased for her 2-year-old daughter. The shoes never turned up in their van, so she assumes she left them behind at the store. I like to think they went home with the benevolent shopper who reached out to my sister. Mis-bagged by the clerk, perhaps they fell out of the woman's shopping bag when she tossed it into the trunk of her car. And maybe, just maybe, as she heads out today to finish up her holiday shopping, the kind stranger will discover that tiny pair of perfect pink slippers -- a poignant reminder of the afternoon she took a few moments to walk in a stranger's shoes.

" 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'  Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' " (Matthew 25:35-40).

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