I can hear her clear strong voice all through the store. My mom and I have popped into my neighborhood grocery store for a few things for dinner. Grocery stores have always produced a trickle of anxiety. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a large person in an overloaded electric wheel chair next to the voice. They are so far away they are more like shadows than concrete beings. Mom is searching for the perfect banana and so my attention is diverted. After picking up the ten items I needed we head to self-checkout.
As I start to scan my first item, here comes the voice. It is encased in the body of about a 5-year-old girl. She has long blonde hair and it sways as she moves. Along with her is a skinny man in a dirty white tank top about 5’5” and a very obese woman driving the wheel chair. I try to focus on my items but this clear voice is now talking to the cashier at the service desk. The tone is so strong and happy. Her questions and statements are concise. They bounce off the walls and check stands. The cashier is now helping her parents. The child turns to me,
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Buying my groceries.” Is it me or is my voice now Mrs. Housley’s? I don’t look up but continue to scan.
“What is that?” I look over, her eyes sparkling, a finger poking a bulging produce bag.
“Apples” I respond.
“Oh, I love apples. Mom can we have some apples? I just love apples!” she asks clapping her hands together, feet jigging. I listen to her ask again, ask where they are, laying out the reasons to buy apples. The vice in my gut tightens because I don’t want to witness any harshness towards this wonderful little girl.
Done checking out, I now have the opportunity to really look at this family. They are filthy. The mom has deep, red scratches at weird angles on her chest. She is not wearing a bra under her dirty white tank top. Her hair is matted. They are all wearing slippers.
“No,” the woman says with a soft voice, “we don’t have any more money.”
The cashier is still helping the dad with something.
I dig out three apples, kneel down so we are eye to eye and hand them to her.
“Here you go. One for each of you.”
Looking straight back she says matter of factly, “My mom doesn’t have any teeth.” The happy strong voice bouncing off me now.
“I’m sure your dad can cut it up for her.” I say.
“I just love apples. I had apples in kindergarten.” her body quivering as she explains.
“Quit bothering the lady” pleads a tired voice with anxious eyes . Before I look up, I breathe out all my assumptions, contempt, my disdain, and my horror. Compassion is all I have left when our eyes meet. She attempts to smile. I can feel the enormous energy it is taking to be a part of this exchange.
“She isn’t bothering me at all. I am an unemployed schoolteacher. I miss talking to smart happy kids like her.” I look right into this young woman’s eyes. How I wish I knew what to do for this family.
Mom and I scurry to the car in silence. What is there to say? Memories of the Hiroshima orphanage pop to the surface of my mind. It’s a place where parents leave their children if they can’t take care of them for any reason. These children are sleeping in clean beds, eating nutritious food, and live in safety. But they are not with their parents. I truly don’t know which is best.