THE BLOG
10/14/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Unique Way Parents Walk Toward Their Children

Kevin Hartnett

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A few weeks ago, I was checking out at Whole Foods. The cashier was a woman, probably in her early fifties, with neat, short hair and a bright face. My sons -- Jay, 5, and Wally, 3 -- were with me, bouncing around in the shopping cart. The sight of two little kids must have reminded her of her own son. "He makes sandwiches right over there," she said, pointing back toward the deli. "Everybody always tell me how good they are." I asked if her son ever makes sandwiches for her at home and she shook her head. "When he's not at work, that's the last thing he wants to do."

At the time, I was struck by the pride in her voice when she spoke of her son's sandwiches, and also by the contrast of such an intimate relationship stretched across the generic landscape of a grocery store.

After we left, I didn't think of her again at all. Days went by and I made many more trips to the grocery store, and each time I approached a check-out lane, it never occurred to me that I might see her again. Then, on Thursday night, I found myself standing in the bakery department, trying to decide what kind of cookies to buy for my wife's family, who were due in the next morning. It was past eight o'clock at night and the store was quiet. It was possible to stand still in one place and not get in anybody's way.

And as I stood there, a woman came up on my left. We made eye contact, just for a second, but in that second I realized two things: It was the same woman I'd talked with while checking out a few weeks ago, and I knew just where she was headed. We exchanged small smiles -- I don't think she recognized me -- and I watched her walk over to the sandwich station. There was a young man in his early twenties, tall and skinny in a white food service cap and matching chef's jacket, assembling a reuben or a roast turkey club. She leaned against the counter and talked. He kept his head down on his work. I wondered whether she visited him at every break, or here and there when time allowed, or whether she'd walked over at the end of her shift specifically to ask whether he wanted a ride home that night.

I didn't end up buying any cookies that evening, but afterward I thought about the expression on her face as she'd flashed past me, and why in that moment it had been so self-evident where she was going. It was an expression I'd seen before, though it took me a few nights to remember where.

Eight years ago, I came home from a long trip abroad. I landed in New York City after midnight, and the next morning I took the train north to see my dad. We spent a week together, then I took the train back down to the city, and a commuter line out into the suburbs, where my mom was going to pick me up at the station. We'd spoken on the phone a lot and we'd emailed even more, but the nine months I'd been away was many times longer than we'd ever gone without seeing each other.

I got off the train wearing sneakers and my big traveling backpack, and I stepped down a short flight of stairs from the platform to the parking lot. I looked around and didn't see her. Then I looked around again, and there she was, walking toward me down a long line of cars. She seemed almost to be bouncing, and several times nearly broke into a run. I remember how far behind she'd left my stepfather, who'd come with her, and the way her purse swung on her arm, and the broad, breaking smile on her face as she drew nearer. It felt almost embarrassing to be the object of such emotion after having done nothing more than come home.

There is an assuredness to the way parents walk toward their children. I can recognize it now in the way my mom walked toward me, and I saw it the other night in the way that mom in Whole Foods walked toward her son. So many of the steps we take in life are laced with doubt or indifference that it's striking to see someone walk with so little regard for anything, but where they're going.

This post originally appeared on Growing Sideways, a blog about fatherhood