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A Lean Year in the Land of Plenty

Two years ago, I wrote a column about a woman and her child in the grocery store. The little boy was misbehaving, begging and crying for every candy bar, toy and soda in the store. The mother, losing patience, was trying to get through to him that they didn't have enough money for the extras. That was still one year away from the big crash. Now, after a year of record job losses and financial upsets, it's hard to go to the grocery store and not see people we know who are in the same situation. Friends and colleagues who are now pinching pennies and looking for work.
I stopped by the grocery store again tonight. And remembered the woman and the little boy. So, I thought I would post it again.
November 26, 2007

Holidays remind us of our fragile world

Cheryl-anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review

It’s always been my job to make sure we celebrate the holidays in a big way. So, last week one of my daughters and I made the traditional night before Thanksgiving trip to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for the big meal.

My daughter took half the list and I went off in search of the rest.

I was aware of another family, another mother and child, beside me. It was hard to miss them. The child was loud and – truth be told – a little obnoxious. He wanted everything he saw and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I listened to his mother explain, again and again, in a voice laced with irritation, why he was not going to get what he wanted. There just wasn’t enough money for anything but the basics, she told him. But he persisted...

When my daughter came back, her arms full, she noticed the boy and made a comment about his behavior.

“They’re having a hard time,” I told her. “I heard his mother say they don’t have a lot of money.”

My daughter wheeled on me.

“Mom!” she cried, her eyes filling with tears. “Why do you have to do this every year?”

“I don’t!” I said automatically. Then, after a beat, asked, “Do what?”

She grabbed our shopping cart and pushed away from me.

“Why do you always have to point out something like that?” she said. “You make me feel bad.”

I was stung. I hadn’t been trying to make an object lesson out of the pair. I’d been just as irritated by the child as everyone else within earshot. But I could hear the weariness in the woman’s voice. I could hear the worry behind the blunt explanation she’d given her son about there not being enough money. And I know that even when you aren’t pinching every penny, it’s no fun to endure the “gimmes” of a whining child who wants the cereal he’s seen on television, or a coveted toy.

That’s all I had meant when I leaped to the woman’s defense.

By this time we were both in tears.

We took our groceries home and put them away, but I was still thinking about what happened in the store.

My daughter is a tender-hearted girl. She is a soft touch. She is indignant about injustice, and she will champion a cause. She rails against poverty, and she isn’t blind to the need that is all around us. She is generous with her time, her talent and her money. But, like everyone, she wants the holidays to be free and easy. She doesn’t want to have to face the pangs of unease that each of us who has enough, and all too often, more than enough, should feel when we see those who don’t.

My sin was that I had, without meaning to, lifted the holiday blinders. I’d been reminded, and had reminded her, that we ought to feel a little gratitude for what we have. And we should never forget that there are others don’t have it so good.

Later, as we worked companionably in the kitchen, getting a head start on the big meal, she spoke.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” she said. “For making you cry.” I returned the apology. And then we talked about what had happened.

I know how she feels. Sometimes the inequity, the sheer unfairness of the way things are divided in this world, gets to you. And for just a minute it would be so nice to forget about it.

But the truth is that no matter how many pretty decorations we put up, or bountiful meals we eat, the dark side of all that celebrating is right in front of us.

She is right. I do point that out. I try to make sure my children know that the world isn’t always as pretty as it seems.

That’s my job, too.

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country.