One of my life’s greatest lessons took place under the fluorescent hum of a Winn Dixie supermarket’s lights. It was the height of a Florida summer, the heat thick as molasses, the air heavy in my mouth. I was six years old, accompanied by my newly divorced mother. We stood in the meat department waiting for our number to be called and I began to stare at all the customers in the store. Most were elderly, transplants from the frigid North. Then, I spotted a woman wearing a winter coat with five children dressed in clothes too small and a look of worry on their faces. Mesmerized by this scene before me, I could not take my precocious six-year-old eyes off of the woman with a winter coat in the middle of July. My mother began to say something to me and caught me staring. Admittedly, I stared a lot and I did it quite often when we were out. I loved observing people and making up stories about them in my head. Oftentimes, I’d get lost in these made up stories and never take my eyes off of my subject. Understandably, this drove my mother crazy. She told me over and over again it was rude and made people feel uncomfortable. She was gently reminding me to stop staring when her eyes followed my gaze to the woman in the coat and her children. In an instant, the woman took two large packages of chicken and shoved them in her coat. I gasped and instinctively, my mother shushed me.
“Don’t say anything, honey,” she hissed.
“But, but, you saw it, she stole-“
“Shh! You’re not a police officer, you’re not a judge, and you know nothing of her life.”
“But she stole the chicken, Mummy!” I protested.
“Yes, you’re right she did. But her babies are hungry. It’s not right, honey, I know its not right but it’s, it’s…it’s complicated.”
I hated that phrase as a child. Everything seemed complicated to the pensive, observant child I was. I had a million questions and few answers.
“But maybe we should help her.” I suggested.
“I’d love to, really but I can’t. If I go over to her right now, it shows that I know she stole. It will embarrass her and bring attention she doesn’t need and a situation those kids don’t need to see.”
As I half listened to my mother trying desperately to explain, an old man shuffled over to the woman. He said nothing, just tapped her on the shoulder and handed her an envelope. He barely looked at her and slowly moved away. The woman opened the envelope and began to cry. She looked up and found my mother, also crying, as she could see the fifty-dollar bills poking out. The woman mouthed silently, “Thank you.”
“Why is she saying thank you? You didn’t give her that money.” I asked.
“You’re right, I didn’t. But I gave her understanding and compassion. Once you become a mom, you are in a club with a bunch of women you don’t know but share a million things with. It’s complicated.” My mother squeezed my hand and winked.
We watched as the woman opened her coat, removed the chicken and put them in her cart. She looked around, stood on her tiptoes, searching for the old man, but could not find him. She smiled at my mom, gathered her children and finished shopping.
My mom sighed, “Life lesson, courtesy of Winn Dixie, Meg: never underestimate the power of giving and kindness. Never, ever.”
We, too, moved on and finished our grocery shopping, but this day has never left me. I think of this day often decades later. I think of the desperation that mother felt to steal, the shame in her position, and the fear of hunger greater than the consequence of theft. I think of the old man, too. The sincere kindness he showed that day. The impact his one act of kindness on an ordinary day had on my mother, the woman, her children, and me. I think of those children, too. The insecurity of hunger, the despondency of circumstance, and the hope found in that Winn Dixie. I think of my mom, too. Her deep compassion for that woman, the camaraderie she shared with her as a mother, and the silent love she sent her that day.
As a mother now, I, too, would probably say, “It’s complicated,” although I vowed I would never use that phrase with my own children. But life is indeed complicated; there is very little black and white, but a whole lot of gray areas. That afternoon in Winn Dixie taught me three things: Kindness is like magic, you have to see it to believe it. Compassion is contagious; it is hard to turn a blind eye when you see the beauty of understanding. Beauty can be found anywhere, even in a run down supermarket on a steamy Florida afternoon, if our eyes and hearts are open to it.