The answer is I still don’t know.
I was checking out at the grocery store, and the woman behind me was clearly getting aggravated with her kids. Girl–7ish, Boy–10ish, Girl–12ish. The youngest was the one getting on her nerves the most. She was yanking all of them, but especially her, pulling her this way and that. People nearby were uncomfortable. At one point, she appeared to be saying that the girl wasn’t behaving when the “dad” was there, so she ordered the dad to go wait somewhere else. (“If you can’t behave while he is here, you can stand by me…”) Girl appeared to be at most a little wiggly, wanted to stand by “dad”, but not loud or in any way misbehaving that I could see.**
Then, I heard “mom” tell girl, “”Do you want to go back to the place where they beat you? Because I can send you there. One phone call. That’s all I have to do.” Girl started crying, but trying to hold it in. She sort of collapsed. (the fall to your knees, ugh, sort of collapse.)
I lost a breath.
I heard myself say that phrase later. I lost a breath. I’ve never said that before and I don’t even know where that comes from. I’ve said, “my heart skipped a beat.” I’ve said, “I was speechless.” But, no, I lost a breath. When I caught my breath again, the cashier and I exchanged a look.
I kept bagging my groceries for a minute. With this awful feeling in my gut.
So, I said to the woman, as nicely and non-accusatory as I could muster, “Excuse, me, but did I just hear you say that you could send your daughter back to the home where she was beaten?” She looked at me, her eyes got big for a second, she sounded like she was going to explain herself, (which I would have truly liked to hear that rationale), then she decided to go with her gut.
Begin arm swooping, finger pointing, stepping up tirade. I am going to get some of these next details wrong, because my adrenaline was definitely pumping. But, she started with “These are my kids. These are not your kids. They are my business.”
I said “I believe kids are everyone’s business.”
I looked at the daughter and said, “I just want you to know there are…”
Woman STEPPED UP. 12″ away from me. And getting closer during this next tirade. ” Do NOT talk to my children. Do not talk to them. I will have you arrested for talking to minors. I will have you thrown in jail if you talk to my children…….”
I held my physical ground. Did not step back an inch. Partially because I had my shopping cart to hold on to. Partially because I’ve worked in group homes and can stay calm and not yell back. I know I can outlast just about anyone in that department. Partially because I saw the kids (the girls) looking at me and wanted them to see that I am not intimidated by their mom. She does not scare me. They may need to back down to her now. For survival. But, not everyone does. And she doesn’t scare me. It is their faces in that moment that I continue to see today. And partially I didn’t back down because, well, I’m damn stubborn.
“Talking to children is not illegal but threatening to beat them is.” (Okay, it’s not. I know that. Nothing is going to go well now.)
“I just want your children to know that there are a lot of people who care about them and that they do not deserve to be hit.”
She is still yelling, about 6″ or less from my nose. That she is not responsible for anything I make her do. That I better just turn around and walk away, just leave, just go to my house and mind my own business. I better just leave. I can’t move from that space. I’m not saying much at this point. But very calm, and Will. Not. Move.
Finally, I feel my cart being pulled and look and see quite a few Pick ‘n Save employees gathered around. And “dad” standing about 5 feet away. Saying nothing. Nothing to the kids. Nothing to mom. Nothing to me. The manager continued to pull my cart away, and I went with him.
Of course, there is no security in the parking lot, and we are parked one aisle away from each other so she can scream at me the whole time. Including calling me a “street b*tch.” ***
I thought about them a lot last night and today. I always think that “someone should do/say” something. But what? If I had it to do over again, I might try a more compassionate approach. “You seem really stressed….” Put my case management hat on for awhile. Sadly, I think we would have ended up exactly where we did. It might have taken 5 or 10 extra seconds, but I think she still would have been in my face yelling.
Once I got to my car, I drove away. Avoiding the aisle the family was in. Mostly because I felt so helpless. And worried that I made things worse for the kids tonight at home. Partly because she must have had at least as much adrenaline running through her body and would she egg me? follow me? take my license plate?
Later, I thought, I should have gotten her license plate. (I do still have my grocery receipt and think she could be tracked down that way….)
I felt so helpless. Still feel so helpless. Which is only one millionth of the way those kids feel.
I can only hope that a tiny glimmer of “this isn’t right” “maybe people do care” got inside of them.
What would you do then?
What would you do now?
I’ll be thinking about this a lot. Because, sadly, I feel there will be a next time.
*I am calling them “mom” and “dad” because I believe they were in caretaker roles, and for clarity of writing. I have those words in quotation marks because, well, I know I made a few assumptions here.
**Yes, I know that a million things happen that I can’t see or don’t know. I don’t believe any of them make it okay to say what came next.
***I found being called a street b*tch actually really funny because it’s been awhile since I worked in group homes/doing case management, and haven’t been called any really funny names in awhile. Croi and I used to have a running “competition” [She’s been the long-standing winner with cheese-and-cracker-h*nky-b*tch] And, because if you know me–I’m so not “street”.