Missed Opportunities Redeemed at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
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
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
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
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.