Words by Sean Dietrich
Illustration by Alex Kirsch
Lorie was watching when the supermarket cashier told the young mother that her card was declined. She knew she wanted to help the woman. She couldn’t explain why. It was something she wanted to do.
Maybe it was the way the girl was holding a baby on her hip and a toddler by the hand. Or it could have been the girl’s frazzled facial expression.
Maybe it was the single-file line of impatient shoppers, rolling eyes, glancing at watches, adjusting their surgical masks.
Lorie stepped forward. She spoke to the cashier. “I wanna buy her groceries,” she said, presenting her card.
The girl looked embarrassed. There’s a feeling that comes with being the recipient of charity. It’s not a pleasant one. You feel a mixture of colossal idiocy and gratefulness, combined into one giant, foul-tasting pepperoni.
“No,” said the girl. “I’ll just put all this stuff back.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lorie.
“Please, ma’am, I don’t need no charity. My boss just hasn’t direct-deposited my check, that’s all.”
There is none prouder than a mother with a light wallet.
“I’m buying your groceries,” said Lorie. “You can either take them home, or let them spoil in the parking lot. But I’m buying them.”
The young woman seemed genuinely confused. “Why are you doing this?”
Lorie thought about it for several moments. It was a very good question. What had come over her? Why was she doing this?
“Just because,” Lorie said.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just a few scant groceries. The girl had practically shoved the whole grocery store into her buggy.
She was buying the confectionary things growing children need to stay healthy and strong. Chocolate bars, chocolate milk, chocolate popsicles, chocolate chips, chocolate fudge brownies, chocolate syrup, chocolate pretzels, Swiss chocolate swizzle sticks, triple chocolate dark fudge ice cream—and a new pancreas.
The girl agreed to let Lorie buy her items. But before paying, she removed an unopened pack of cigarettes from a bag and returned them to the cashier.
“No,” said Lorie. “Keep your cigarettes. I’ll buy those, too. I smoked for 23 years. This isn’t the day to go cold turkey.”
The girl probably felt like a major fool now. A stranger was buying her Virginia slims.
When the groceries were bagged, they walked to the parking lot together.
Lorie could feel the girl tensing up. It was probably the humiliation of it all. Or maybe the girl was wondering why this strange woman was doing this. Were there strings attached? Was Lorie an axe murderer? Or perhaps a fundamentalist wack job?
The truth was, Lorie was remembering when she was single, raising children on pennies. Her family ate food donated from the Methodist church. And in those days, Lorie’s two jobs barely earned enough to stay above the waterline.
This is why Lorie passed no judgments and gave no sermons. She didn’t criticize the family’s truly staggering chocolate addiction. She didn’t tell the girl that her kids’ teeth would likely be rotted out by next Tuesday.
She didn’t warn the girl about the surgeon general’s thoughts on smoking. Neither did Lorie hand her a religious pamphlet on how to join the Women’s Missionary and Tiny Finger Sandwich Society.
Lorie merely helped the girl load groceries. They swapped phone numbers. And Lorie left.
A few weeks later. Lorie was at home, working in her garden. It was a hot day. Lorie heard her dog barking like somebody was at the door.
“I thought it was UPS,” said Lorie. “I get a lot of deliveries since COVID started.”
Lorie walked through the house wearing soiled gloves and a big sun hat. She opened her door. But nobody was there. On her welcome mat sat a green envelope. Inside was cash and a thank-you card. From a young mother.
Lorie read the letter twice. She dabbed her eyes with filthy gloves. Not just because the words were sweet, but because she was remembering scenes from her own youthful motherhood. Life has not been easy for her. Lorie doesn’t give me many details from her personal story, but I was reared by a single mother. I can read between the sunhats.
Lorie removed a cell phone and dialed a number. A familiar one. The phone rang several times. Finally, an old woman’s groggy voice answered with a yawn.
“Miss Sandy?” said Lorie. “Did I wake you? Were you sleeping?”
“No,” said the elderly voice. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was just closing my eyes and snoring.”
“I can call back.”
“I’m awake now. What’s going on? You need help?”
“No, Miss Sandy, I was just sitting here, thinking about things.”
Lorie was thinking about how, years ago, she was standing in a supermarket checkout line with a baby on her hip and a screaming toddler by the hand. Her husband had recently left her. She was broke. Life was upended.
When the cashier told Lorie the total cost of her items, Lorie nearly died. She didn’t have the cash.
An older woman in line saw the whole thing happen. The woman was Lorie’s silver-haired neighbor who lived a few doors down. They hardly knew each other and had never exchanged more than a few hellos. The older woman stepped forward and paid for Lorie’s groceries. No questions asked. She even bought Lorie’s cigarettes.
The lady’s name was Sandy. They have been friends ever since. Sandy is 83.
“You remember that one time?” asked Lorie. “In the grocery store?”
“Yes,” said Sandy.
“I’ve always wondered, what made you do that for me? Why did you do such a nice thing for someone you hardly knew at all?”
The woman’s answer came quickly.