Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Missed Opportunities Redeemed at the Talbot County Free Library
When I reached the grocery's service counter, someone was already ahead of me: a young mother with two small daughters in tow. Taking my proper position behind them (not so close as to be rude; close enough to make it clear I was next in line), I took note of the way the clerk waiting on the lady was frowning at his computer. The man looked stumped. Without ever looking up from his screen, he said, “I'll be with you in a minute, sir.” “No hurry,” I replied, “it's Saturday.” This earned me a smile, though the man's eyes remained fixed on the computer.
It was at that moment that the younger of the two children, who had wedged herself into the space between the counter and Mommy's legs, said something unintelligible. “Not now,” said her mother (in a whispered store voice that meant: I mean it), “and if you ask again you won't get any.” Chastened, the little one buried her head in Mommy's knees.
The older daughter, who looked to be about six, had just discovered her heels would slip out of her shoes when she stood on tiptoe. Practicing this new trick, she now repeatedly rose up on her toes, then slammed her heels back into her shoes, the uppers slowly surrendering beneath the pounding. She announced to no one in particular, “I love my new shoes.”
“And they're beautiful,” I said, thinking someone ought to reply. The daughter looked surprised and pleased. Mom shot a glance over her shoulder, registered a rather harmless looking older guy chatting up her child, smiled at him, then returned to the business at hand. “And I can do this too,” said the older daughter, rocking back onto her heels as, earlier, she had her toes. I smiled and nodded appreciatively, all the while wondering how long the shoes would last.
“It's asking a security question,” the clerk announced. “It wants to know your oldest daughter's name.” The mother told the man, spelling the name out for him. When that didn't work, she suggested he try the youngest's name, spelling that out as well. No luck. I noticed the Western Union money transfer forms sitting on the countertop.
“What am I going to do?” the young mother asked, shoulders hunched forward as if she might will the store's computer into complying, “he won't answer my phone calls.” The clerk nodded sympathetically. “We'll work it out,” he said.
“He's my ex ...” the woman began, then faltered. “What's wrong, Mommy?” asked the youngest daughter from between her mother's knees. And it was then that I realized that quietly, trying to keep me and everyone else from seeing it, the young woman had begun to cry.
It was at that moment that, thankfully, another clerk appeared at the far end of the counter and asked if she could help me. Relieved by the chance this gave me to offer the woman in front of me a little privacy, I moved quickly down to this second clerk and began to explain why I was returning the guacamole I'd purchased the day before.
Later, of course, I could have kicked myself. I had a twenty in my wallet. I could have given that to the mother. Heck, I could have used my debit card to buy a week's groceries for the little family. But I hadn't. In the embarrassment of the moment the best I had been able to do was to offer her my absence; I'd scurried off thinking I was doing her a favor.
For days afterward I couldn't get that little family out of my mind, the girls so innocent and unaware, their mother so desperate. I didn't know their names; I didn't know where they lived; there was absolutely nothing I could do to help them. Finally, trying to make amends in the only way I knew how, I resolved to work harder at the library.
I know that sounds slightly ridiculous, I mean how could that help them, but you have to remember I really believe in the library. It's the way I try to give back to our community, the way I try to help people whose names I often don't know, whose addresses I almost never know. Our patrons will have to stand in for that young mother and her children. Working like that at whatever job we have, whatever task we have been given, trying as hard as we can to better serve the people who share this brief moment of time with us here on planet Earth, well that is often, I fear, the best any of us can do.
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