Stranger Kindness

Our house in Edmonton was a ten-minute walk to the West Edmonton Mall. Most things in Edmonton are not within walking distance. That sounds stupid, because it’s applicable to any large city, really, but  Edmonton requires a car to get to most places, irrespective of where you live. Therefore, living so close to a world-famous landmark requires bragging, especially since I feel like I didn’t take enough advantage of the proximity at the time. Oh, how nostalgia idealizes the mundane!

On a sunny winter Saturday—of course it was sunny! It’s always sunny in past Edmonton!—we all four embarked on a shopping expedition to West Edmonton Mall. My family had gifted me a set of loungewear like I had never owned in my life. I had never, in fact, needed loungewear. But this was worth changing habits for. It was CK: a pair of pants and a dressing gown made of modal, that soft, light material that drapes so nicely you’d think I was Catherine Hepburn. I fact, I constantly felt moved to linger in doorways, hips tilted to one side and raised arm casually supporting my weight on the door jamb on the other side. It was a beautiful gift that I had liked so much, I got greedy and desired the same pair of pants in black.

So we went into the mall through The Bay, and my partner attempted to steer the kids—a running one and a crawling one—towards more interesting areas, so I could enjoy my right-of-shopping in child-free privacy in the lingerie department. No such luck! My four-year old and my 10-month old both wanted to accompany me as if they had been wrenched from my bosom an eternity ago, and only now allowed to glimpse me—their long-lost mother—for the first time. I was the fount of life, and they had been parched for too long.

So they trailed me, and I swallowed and buried my need for aloneness, and browsed, touched, lifted off the rack in placed in front of mine—there was no question of entering a fitting room, both because I hate trying stuff on in a store, and because of the kids. One of the store employees—an older woman with a gentle voice and an understanding smile—came to ask if I needed help, and admired my entourage knowingly. She offered to help me locate what I was looking for. My partner tried to pry the kids away, but it was all in vain. I was starting to enjoy slaloming between the racks of lacy bras and colourful panties with my train of two little people and one partner—two bipedal and one crawler—so I said to the nice woman that I’d find my own way.

Katherine Hepburn and her hallowed dressing gown

Finally, we found them, those black lounge pants of my dreams. We went to the till, only to find the same nice woman there. I don’t remember our conversation—I always chat with cashiers, to the exasperation of my companions and the people behind me in line, but I only do it while they’re ringing my stuff through, so I don’t really see what the big fuss is! I do recall distinctly that she handed me the shopping bag—it was one of those fancy paper ones, holding my tissue-paper-wrapped unmentionables—and, on a widening smile, whispered “I put a little something in there for you.” “Oh, thank you so much!” was the only thing I could say, before my oldest, who had understood the whispered words quite distinctly started jumping up and down and asking “What is it, Mummy? Can I see it? What did she put it? Can you show it to me?” none-too discretely.

It was a powder brush branded with one of the big bra manufacturers’ name. A promotional gift. A simple travelling powder brush with a sliding cap, encased in a black and shiny handle and cover. When you opened the cover, the sliding mechanism was rose gold, and it would slide to reveal a soft two-inch bundle of artificial bristles, in an ombré shading from brown to purple. I don’t use much makeup, but I have kept the brush.

I still find it so moving that a woman I had never seen in my life, nor will likely ever see again would try to show her empathy by sharing a little gift with me. It wasn’t about the material exchange, but about the emotional connection between two strangers. Two mothers sharing the secrets that all of us come to learn on our own with our first child. With every other child we might have, or meet, or hear of. Once you learn of the hardship, you cannot help but try to lighten another’s load in any way you can.

A stranger kindness I have never encountered.

One Response to “Stranger Kindness

  • We used to live in Japan, and when we were leaving, I mailed carton after carton of books back to Canada (because, you see, they don’t have battered secondhand paperbacks in Canada) and I became quite intimate with the post office staff, who commemorated our relationship with the gift of a sponge that fell to pieces the first time I used it. I think it was more about the gesture than the thing though.

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