Three-thirty in the afternoon. The store is busy. Kids, hungry after school, lean hard and cranky against the shopping baskets their mothers push down the crowded aisles. I watch a middle-aged guy jump the check-out line. He sees me see him and he straightens up from his hastily maneuvered cart and does a defensive ‘who me’ shrug. Hurried myself, I bite my tongue, check my list, press on. There is a tall brunette bearing down on me. I do a half pirouette to let her by and hear a little voice, upturned, just finishing a question on the woman’s far side. As they pass me I hear her brisk reply:
“We are not here for fun. We are here for things to eat.”
I feel a flash of… something. Pause carefully on the threshold of judgment. I have always tried to avoid shopping-as-chore. We used to make food shopping an adventure, now it is at the very least a creative exercise in lunch kit supply choices. The little girl is being hustled along next to her mother, her dark ponytails just visible at the end of the aisle now. The truth is that shopping is a chore, especially at this hour, especially when your legs are little and everyone’s patience is thin.
I realize what I am feeling is an empathy wince.
Being a parent is filled with daily obstacle courses small and large. The Afternoon Meltdown hours between 3:30 and 6:30 are a particularly trying sprint. A homework hatchet hangs heavy and urgent over our household tonight, so I keep moving, wedge the freezer door open with my hip, grocery basket biting into my forearm, bottle returns clanking on my other flank. I try to smile at the kids hauling backpacks past me, and nod as we navigate the space so the parents know there is no pressure from me even if they are in the middle of a teary negotiation in the frozen waffle section.
Judgment is a withering thing under which family life does not thrive. We must allow room for each other.
The guy who jumped the line though? He needs remedial kindergarten.