I watched a mom hit her kid in a thrift store tonight.
Not spank. Hit.
It was loud, and it was awful, and immediately there were like fifteen people on high alert, drawn to the sound of solid hand making contact, again and again, kid wailing and full-voiced Don’t you EVER do that EVER EVER EVER AGAIN, I swear to god, DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT EVER FUCKING AGAIN. Employees running, people noticing, no one intervening exactly, but positioning themselves strategically nearby. The girl couldn’t have been more than two, red-eyed and wailing, a bunch of tiny pink barrettes in her hair.
It felt like forever, but then it was over, the mother noticing the surge of people pushing shopping carts nearby, looking anywhere but at her directly. Get your ass up, she muttered, jerking the girl’s arms upwards and rolling the cart elsewhere.
I felt ashamed. I should have intervened. I should have said something. I am bigger than that little girl.
But that mother was bigger than I was.
And if I’m being honest, she scared me, too.
I said as much to the couple nearby. They were older, in their sixties. “Don’t beat yourself up,” said the man. “You have to be careful when you approach strangers. You never know what might escalate if you had confronted her.”
“That just ruined my day,” said the woman, adjusting her scarf. It was purple and silky and floral, a touch I found endearing in a way I can’t entirely explain. “I feel sick to my stomach.”
“You just never know. You never know what’s learned at home. You never know what people’s problems are. You just never know.”
“Still,” I said. “I wish I could have … I wish I had said something.”
The man looked at me for a moment. And then he said, “Excuse me. I’m going to go hug that little girl.”
Want to believe in humanity for a minute? Here is what happened. The couple waited another few minutes until the mother seemed to have calmed down.
And then I watched this older man approach the cart, and say, “What an absolutely beautiful little girl. Hi, little one. It’s so nice to meet you.” He turned to the mother and said, “She really is a beautiful child, you know?”
They talked, the mother and the couple. It wasn’t perfect. She was embarrassed and defensive and putting up walls and lukewarm in her reception of them. They kind of ran out of steam after a brief while. But they had enough time to say, your child is small and should be loved and what just happened was frightening and it was not okay. And she had enough time to say I’m just so tired and I saw her choking her baby brother and I know that’s not an excuse but I panicked I panicked I panicked.
They didn’t end this with a hug. No Kum-ba-ya, Nicholas Sparks shit. Nothing really happened except a brief moment of nonverbal Ok, I see you, thank you, now excuse me, as the mother made her way towards the register.
But damn if that man didn’t ask permission – and receive it – to pick up a stranger’s crying toddler and hug her and comfort her until the crying stopped.
I called friends immediately afterwards who live about five minutes away. I had some vague business that probably could have waited until later – Hey, can I get that thing out of your basement? I’m in your neighborhood, can I stop by? – but the truth is probably just that I wanted to pull into their driveway and hear the sound of their three-year-old say, “Daddy? Listen, listen! I think Auntie Fritzie is at the door.”
I wanted to snuggle the crap out of that kid, and I did – went right from “I’ll only be a minute,” to “I would love to stay for dinner,” to “Would you like me to read bedtime stories tonight?”
I wish I had a tidy conclusion to draw here, some larger insight to share. Some deep thoughts about how those two kids probably live near one another, might even go to school together someday, how you wonder what kinds of people they will become. How that little girl experiences her mother’s anger as a hit and a GET YOUR ASS UP, NOW. How my little buddy, all floppy limbs and sweet-smelling hair and high-pitched giggles, experiences his parents’ anger as GO SIT ON THE NAUGHTY STEP. NO, YOU MAY NOT HAVE DESSERT.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion because it’s not so easy as good parent / bad parent. It’s not so easy as, “When I have kids, I will never do that.” It’s not so easy as that.
But I can tell you that I wanted to hug that couple in the thrift store. For being brave in a way that I wasn’t tonight.
Instead, I hugged the crap out of a tiny toddler in an astronaut onesie. And gave a silent offering of thanks to the world: for love and for bravery and for the good ones among us. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks.