I’ve never been outright destitute. They weren’t either, from appearances. Ah, appearances. They mean nothing.
We’ve eaten the same thing every night because that’s what we could afford. Fish and rice because both were cheap. I still can’t eat those Pillsbury biscuits in the 5-pack because of how many we ate to fill ourselves up when we were first living together, supporting ourselves. And, though it happened, it was rare when I wondered where our next meal would come from. I have asked for, and received, government assistance for food. We’ve been late on the mortgage, we’ve stretched the hell out of a whole chicken, sometimes grits was the whole meal, we’ve had cars repossessed, we’ve had to borrow from family. But, thankfully, we’ve never had to resort to asking for anything from strangers on the street.
I am skeptical by nature. I think this is the one trait that doesn’t align with my zodiac sign. As a Libra, I love fairness. I like knowing that things are evenly distributed. I’ve only recently been able to be OK with squirreling away extra of something I enjoy, like baked salmon or pistachios, just for myself. But I am a skeptic. There’s a saying: believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. I tend to operate this way.
It was Mother’s Day weekend. We were leaving Target, hurrying to get home for lunch when he approached me. He got too close too fast, so I was standoffish. But he was trying to whisper, so I guess the closeness was necessary. I still frowned. I remember frowning at him. He noticed and stepped back. I heard half of what he was saying, something about not having any food, being on public assistance but having a last name starting with a letter far down the alphabet — he wouldn’t get money for food until Thursday. I remembered that feeling, wishing I’d kept my maiden name that starts with a B because H aid was distributed mid-month. And then he mentioned “them” and I finally looked up, took in the whole situation. A wife, four kids, boys old enough to know what was being said about their food situation, and a small girl in a stroller. He admitted being embarrassed, said this was a last resort. I told him I didn’t have any cash and drove away.
I got through two stop signs before I made a u-turn.
He had the entire family with him. Even if they were hustling folks, it didn’t matter. The likelihood — no, probability — that they weren’t scamming was too high. My conscience was on fire with turn around, turn around, turn around. I knew I’d be plagued with thoughts of them the rest of the day and beyond if I didn’t help.
Now, understand this: we are unable to help everyone who asks. There are times when I want to help because babies and hunger and hurt and eyes that say much more than “please help,” but I simply can’t. We are in a better position overall, though, from 5 years ago, and when I can help — and when my bullshit judgmental tendencies aren’t loud in my head: she doesn’t NEED help, her shoes are too clean for her to need help, her purse is nicer than mine, how do I know that’s her baby, he probably has more money than me, how’d she get on the train if she needs money for the train — I help.
When we got back into the parking lot, I asked the kids if they’d be ok in the car a few minutes. I will never forget the look in my 12-year-old’s eyes as she scanned the parking lot for the family. “We’re fine. Leave the windows down,” she said, as she kept looking, then pointed where the family was standing. I pulled up next to the man, asked if he needed groceries or cash. I dismissed the thought about, “Of course he’ll say cash.” He said cash. But then he said, “Whatever is easiest for you.” I knew what they didn’t need was me walking behind them, holding tight to money, asking why they were choosing Fruit Loops instead of Cheerios.
I love Fruit Loops.
I went to the ATM and took the money to them. The relief, even amid the embarrassment, was so evident it was all I could do to not tell them they’d be ok because I knew their struggle and I was ok. I’m ok. I can’t promise anyone else will be ok. It takes its toll, hunger; there’s a pervasive fear, a need to be secretive, shame from working hard for menial results, the inability to adequately provide for yourself, your family.
She whispered, “Happy Mother’s Day” as they walked away.
I hope they’re ok.