I’m sitting in a beautiful spot in the pristine, upscale neighborhood of Kirkland, WA, right on the shore of Lake Washington. The water is gently lapping at my feet. It’s a beautiful day. The ducks are splashing about, and a cadre of adorable young children race by me and charge into the water happily. I hear their mothers in the background calling to them to slow down, keep their shoes on, and not go into the water. These adorable mismatched urchins look so carefree and relaxed. I remember back to my kids at that age. I shouldn’t have worried so much about their clothes, their hair cuts, their light up sneakers. These kids seem lighter, happier in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.
From my perspective, this is charming and delightful. I smile at one of the moms and assure her that the fact that her little ones are not even remotely listening to her is perfectly normal and that it does get easier as they become older and more self-sufficient. She looks tired and hassled and smiles back at me, not really believing my reassurances. I almost say the most horrible thing a person can say to a harried parent in the midst of early childhood chaos, “Enjoy these moments. They go by way too quickly.” Fortunately, I’m smart enough to remember how many well-wishing older people shared that trite bit of information with me as a young mom, and I’m all too aware of how mind-numbingly insensitive it is to say that to an exhausted parent with toddlers in tow. So I say nothing. Hurray for me. Maybe I’ve conquered my inability to self-edit. Maybe I’ve finally matured. Maybe not.
I glance at my watch and realize I’m now 5 minutes late for an important meeting. I gather my things, say goodbye and start to rush off. “Excuse me, Miss,” one of the moms asks, “Do you know of a day center near by?”
“A day center?” I repeat. “You mean like a daycare for the kids?”
“No,” she clarifies, “A center…for women and children…like to stay?”
It suddenly dawns on me that she means a homeless shelter. (Is that not what we are supposed to call them anymore?) As the most politically incorrect woman on the planet – eI mean person – I seem to make every verbal misstep possible in our new Seattle society. I feel like a moron.
“Um…no, I’m sorry. I don’t know of any nearby.” But then with the wit and resourcefulness of a genius, I add, “I’m sure you can just google it on your cell phone and you’ll find what you need.”
“Sadly,” the young woman replied, “I sold my cell phone so I can’t look it up.”
Now I am 100% aware of being a complete and utter ignoramus, and I am seven minutes late for my meeting and starting to panic.
“I have to run into this office to meet some people,” I apologize, “Will you be here for five more minutes?” She nods, and I tell her I’ll look into it and come back.
I’m certain from her kind but dismissive smile that she does not expect my return. I race to the meeting spot and rush in uttering a slew of regrets for my tardiness. I then explain that I’ve had a bit of a situation and need to check something on my phone. I assure my momentary return.
Darting towards the exit, I grab paper and jot down the names of several close centers with hours, addresses and phone numbers. When I get back to the beach, my mom friend is deep in conversation with her pal. I clear my throat to announce my return, and she seems slightly shocked to see me. I half expect her to look at me with disdain and pretend she doesn’t even recognize me after my previous faux pas. I hand her the paper and say, “I found these two places. Maybe one of them will work?”
She smiles warmly and graciously thanks me for looking it up for her. She calls to her friend that I found the place for which they were looking. They go back to their conversation with renewed vigor and I slip away, back to rush of the day, my “important” meeting, and the safety of my suburban problems.
Before ducking into my meeting, I glance back at the shoreline once more to see carefree kids splashing in the waves and I think, “Maybe I should’ve done more, given them money or food or some kind of intangible safety net.” But I don’t know what that would look like. So instead, I take a deep breath and appreciate the courage and strength it takes each and every one of us as we face our unique daily struggles to build a safe haven for ourselves and our families, and I am grateful for a lesson learned and the kindness of a stranger.
Debra Rich Gettleman is a mother, blogger, actor and playwright. For more of her work,