There was a tension in her tone that made me look up from the frozen food section, my quest for finding the no sugar added grape juice concentrate completely forgotten.
At the other end of the aisle was a young mother, her back to me. She raised her arms to her head, holding it for a moment, and then pressed her hands to her eyes, her back straight and shoulders tensed. A young boy was busy pulling a box of cereal from the stroller in front her.
"Just stop!" she said, the tenor of her voice filled with anger. But more than that, there was panic and desperation, too.
I'd been there before and knew she was close to her breaking point.
I hurried away from my cart until I was beside her and gently asked her if she was OK.
She looked at me, her eyes full of tears. "No, no I'm not," she said. "I just can't think. He keeps pulling things, and asking for things, and I forgot my list and can't remember what I need to get. And I have to remember. I have to."
The little boy was now standing in front of me, holding up a plastic tow truck which, despite the cardboard packaging, was emitting loud honking noises. I squatted in front of him, still looking up at the young woman beside me.
"I've been there. It's hard," I said. "How about I talk to your son here for a minute while you gather your thoughts?"
"Thank you," she said. "I need that."
She roughly brushed her eyes with the back of her hand and I noticed her hand was shaking.
She stood there quietly for several minutes while I conversed with her young son. He showed me every button on the truck, how the lights flashed and how he wanted to take the truck home if Mommy would let him. He told me he was 3 and that he needed a truck that had a hook on the back like this one. He was a ball of energy and talked nonstop for the few moments I visited with him.
Finally bored with the truck, he set it down and hurried to the stroller packed with several items of food and tugged at the box of cereal still lodged underneath several cans of vegetables. He said he wanted to show me the new cereal they were going to buy.
His mom, now calm, thanked me for helping her. She told her story to me as we took up most of the space in the frozen vegetables section of the grocery store. Her husband had dropped her off with her son so that she could use a $50 voucher a local food pantry had given her little family. She'd forgotten the list at home -- the list where she'd calculated exactly what they could buy with that voucher. And as the panic rose over not knowing what to get, she felt herself buckling under the weight of the responsibility -- and the feeling that she'd failed. The nonstop talking and questions of her happy 3-year-old were just too much for her.
And with the gift of space in those few moments, she'd collected her thoughts and remembered the missing items on her list.
As I walked back down the aisle to my abandoned cart, I heard her conversing gently with her son.
My heart went out to that young mother. I'd been in her shoes -- that overwhelmed place of too many things crashing down at once and then lashing out at a child in that moment. And I've felt the shame of being that mom. I felt a deep respect for her, because in that moment when a stranger reached out, she accepted the help. That is not easy.
It was a good reminder that sometimes all we need is a kind word, a moment of generosity, to help ease the burden of living and avoid melting down in the frozen food aisle.