One day, about 25 years ago, not too long after I had moved to Texas from the mid-west, I went to the grocery store to get a few necessities. I was about 22-years-old. I aspired to be dirt poor. To say that I was struggling would be an understatement.
Into my cart, I put the very few carefully chosen things I could afford – a small carton of milk, a loaf of day old bread, off-brand toothpaste and a small box of feminine products. I put my groceries onto the conveyer and watched the cashier ring up each item, making sure she hadn’t rung up anything for one penny more than it cost. I don’t remember what the total was. I do remember reaching into my purse for my checkbook and not finding it. And then realizing I had left it at home. I remember the sensation of disbelief and then panic wash down my spine like lighter fluid.
I began scrounging through my purse looking for enough money to cover my groceries, although I don’t know why. I was as likely to have a kangaroo in my purse as I was to have enough cash to pay for my groceries.
As I was frantically digging through my purse willing money to materialize, I felt the spark of life begin to flicker and wane. That little spark that I had been tenderly protecting for months, that spark that had burned just bright enough to beat back the loneliness and kept me convinced that I could make it in Texas, that little spark that was going to prove to all those people back home that they were wrong about me – that little spark was all but out.
It had been a hard, hard year and for some reason the missing checkbook seemed like a big bucket of water aimed right at my spark. I was trying so very hard to be a grown up and I was failing. I felt like crumpling into a heap onto the grocery store floor and crying my eyes out.
I looked at the cashier and tried to work up the nerve to tell her that I had no money, that I would have to come back for my stuff. She looked at me with her arms folded across her chest and her eyebrows raised expectantly, as though she had seen this before.
Then the lady in line behind me handed the cashier $10.
“It would bless me to do this small thing for you,” she said to me. “Please. Allow me. This money means nothing to me.”
She looked into my face for consent. Her expression was hopeful and happy. She nodded her head yes.
I sighed and hung my head in shame. And then I nodded agreement. I was grateful. I was embarrassed. If I had allowed my voice into my throat at that moment, I would have begun sobbing uncontrollably. With big fat tears threatening to spill, I simply smiled at her and mouthed the words thank you.
After I composed myself and collected my bag of groceries, I offered to mail her a check but she waved me off, telling me to keep my chin up and have a nice day.
Recently, when I was in the grocery store, that memory came flooding back. It was early in the day when the only shoppers in the store are the AARP mafia and a few other moms. I got the things I needed and then got in line behind a young gal. I watched her methodically put each item on the conveyer, carefully checking the price, doing math in her head.
After her purchases were rung up, she counted out her cash to the cashier. And then she looked at the total and counted it again. Something wasn’t right. And then she began rummaging through her purse. “Oh no,” she said, “I thought I had another $10 in my purse.” She kept rummaging while at the same time glancing back at her groceries to see what she could put back.
I recognized the look of panic on her face. I saw in her that her spark and her spirit had been tested. I reached into my purse and handed the cashier $10.
“Please,” I said, “It would bless me if you will allow me to do this for you.”
“Oh no,” she said, “I couldn’t.”
“Please,” I persisted. “I must.”
And it was true. It was as if I had no choice in the matter. I had to.
“Well thank you,” she said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s been really hard…” and then her voice trailed off.
“I understand,” I said. And I did understand.
She gathered up her bags and then turned and smiled at me. She thanked me again.
“Have a nice…” Then I stopped.
Have a nice day didn’t seem fitting.
”Have a nice life,” I said.
“I will,” she said, “You too.”
I am having a nice life. When you grow up to to be the lady in the grocery store who is lucky enough to get to pay it forward once in a while, that’s a nice life.