Back then, grocery shopping became a chore for me rather than a needed break from my children. And when I did wander down those aisles with my calculator in hand, checking my list and the growing number on my screen, I agonised sometimes over cereal selection and mandarin oranges or some other fruit. I smuggled big bags of generic puffed wheat into our home and dumped it into plastic containers with no label that would expose my deceit. I was the queen of hamburger and, given a chance and a great flyer deal, would drive extra miles for a sale on chicken parts with my heart beating faster and faster as I saved another dollar for another day and got to eat chicken instead of meat loaf. I coached my children to save milk for meals and not to share any juice boxes with their friends as I could not replace them for use when the next field trip showed up on their take home papers. And yet, I did not feel poor.
I lived in a nice house in an average neighbourhood in a small town with clean streets and green parks and a baseball diamond down the road. My children skated at the local arena and played soccer across the street. We fit in. We looked like an average family with our cheap Walmart and consignment clothes and teeth brushed with the toothpaste that was on sale last week. We were not poor.
One day, during a shopping trip for a celebration dinner for our little family plus a few friends, I rounded the corner of the aisle and zigzagged around the long line up of multiple grocery carts loaded to overflowing with turkeys, big roasts of beef, boxes of mandarins and Cheerios tipping precariously on the edge of the top rail. I envied these women imagining in my mind that they never once pulled out a calculator like I did. I envied them the privilege I had had once, picking and tossing food and miscellaneous goods with ease, just knowing that at the till the numbers would spit out, they would insert their debit card, the tape would roll and then be ripped and handed with a smile and a "Thank you for shopping with us today." I felt poor. In fact I felt angry, ripped off, tired of scrimping and saving, and filled with a strong desire to call my ex-husband and tell him I would send him the bill.
My anger made tears gather in the corners of my eyes and I quickly swiped them away while pretending to clean my glasses. My anger covered up my heart breaking news that once again some item or another would be missing from our dinner table - not just the presence of the man who had fathered these amazing children. Grumpily, I continued my journey, feeling sorry for myself, for my children, and then tried to include a generous wish that all families everywhere could ditch this overwhelming frustration of never having quite enough. I felt guilty. I felt angry. I felt poor.
I reached the till somehow that day, smiled at the clerk, and turned to lift out the first item in my only slightly filled cart, knowing that my black mood was more evidence of my shrinking heart than the non-existent poverty I was claiming as my own. A hand reached over and touched my hand just as I grabbed the generic peanut butter jar. I looked up into the smiling, pale-blue eyes and acne-scarred face of Harvey staring at me. I knew him - sort of. He was one of my ex-husband's colleagues, a strange guy, quiet, bookish and yet, somehow, had managed to become a good salesman over the years.
He greeted me briefly, handed me a card and said, "Hope this helps you and the kids a little. I know you must be going through a rough time."
Harvey waved again and disappeared into the mall. My heart grew a little bigger. It wasn't the size of the small gift card he had placed in my hand, although it would make a difference to the ones I loved the most - my children. The tears I experienced were tears of gratitude for someone who noticed that average me - not poor me, not underprivileged me, just me - could get through another day, another week and many years fueled by the joy handed to me by a man who was almost a stranger. His act of kindness was timed perfectly.
There are so many Facebook posts about this phenomenon. Like many I nod my head and maybe tear up a bit and go on with my life. I say that I know what it feels like to be that one on the receiving end. I have even experienced the extreme joy being on the giving end. Either way, I never get tired of reading or watching these scenarios. That is the basis of who we are as human beings. And I remember once again, it is not necessarily the biggest, most visible gift that makes the greatest impact but a series of well-timed, simple kind gestures paid forward every single day that may lift up an average single mom struggling to make ends meet even when she really isn't poor!