The first time I saw her was as I waited in line behind several other people at the Walmart prescription counter. She was a couple of people ahead of me, but she definitely caught my attention from the moment I noticed her.
Her hair was dark … like the color of charcoal … and her eyes were an intense, deep green. She was about my height, and she was thin … she was very, very thin. She wore no jewelry, and the jeans that sat low on her hips were worn and frayed.
She shifted nervously back and forth as she waited for her turn at the window to pick up her medication, her hands jammed deeply inside the pockets of her jeans. The two small children who sat in the cart in front of her were eerily quiet, too quiet for kids who looked to be five or six years old. It seemed like hours before her eyes finally met mine, and I fought to look away from her … I fought to look away from her face, her eyes … I fought to look away from her.
She paid for her two prescriptions with change from her pockets, the pockets her hands had been jammed into only a few minutes earlier. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone pay for medicine with quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies before, and I couldn’t help but notice the impatience of the clerk as he carefully counted the money to make sure it was enough. She gathered the small bags that contained the medications and placed them in the pocket of the tattered hooded sweatshirt that hung loosely from her small shoulders. She turned the cart that held the two silent children and made her way past those of us who were still waiting. I smiled at the kids as they got closer, and her eyes met mine once again. Those intense, deep green eyes met mine, and I saw again what I had seen earlier … hurt and pain. She mumbled something as she quickly looked down at the floor when she hurried past me. I turned and watched as she walked away with her two eerily quiet children.
I paid for my medication and pushed my own cart along the aisles of the crowded store as I tried to recall what I needed to purchase. I was in the peanut butter aisle when I saw her again, her forehead wrinkled in what seemed to be deep thought as she stared at the multitude of peanut butter jars before her. I wondered what it was about peanut butter that could cause her such apparent distress, and I fought back the urge to ask as I placed a half-dozen jars of my favorite brand into my cart. I smiled at her children again as I turned to head on down the aisle, and surprisingly, the little boy sheepishly smiled back at me. And then I looked into her eyes again, the children’s mother’s eyes, and I smiled at her as well. She nodded her head and once again stared at the floor beneath her feet. I kept walking, stopping to grab a couple of jars of sugar-free peach preserves.
And then I heard the dainty voice of the little girl say, “Mommie, can we have some jelly just this once to go on our peanut butter?”
“Just this once?” I thought … “What does that mean, just this once? Does that mean that kid has never had jelly before? Are those kids so quiet because they are hungry? Just this once … What. Does. That. Flipping. Mean?” As those thoughts raced through my mind, I turned to look back to see if I could catch her eyes again … those intense, deep green eyes … and when she looked up, I saw it again. I saw the hurt and pain again, but this time the hurt and pain were joined by tears.
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but no,” she said softly to her daughter. “We don’t have enough money today for jelly and peanut butter. Maybe next time.”
“That’s what you say every time,” the little boy said with his arms crossed in defiance across his chest. “You always say maybe next time on jelly and lots of other things, too.”
“I’m so sorry, Mattie,” she said with sadness lacing her voice. “When Daddy gets well, I promise.”
My own blue eyes filled with tears as I gathered my courage and walked toward the trio who now had my undivided attention.
“Did I hear your mom say your name is Mattie?” I asked the little boy who had the same intense, deep green eyes as his mother. He nodded his head at me and smiled a little, and I said, “Well, Mattie, I have a son named Mattie, too! And do you know what today is?” Mattie shook his head from side to side, wondering what in the world the crazy lady with the ball cap, baggy jeans and really ugly sweatshirt was talking about. “Well, sir,” I said in my most serious voice, “Today is ‘Buy a Mattie and his sister their favorite food’ day!! And it’s my extra lucky day because my Mattie lives very far away, and I was looking for someone to celebrate this special day with!”
I extended my hand and gazed into her eyes once again … the intense, deep green eyes that seemed to hold so much hurt and pain. The intense, deep green eyes that now held my gaze as they struggled to contain the tears that filled them.
“I’m Terrie,” I said, “and these kiddos need some jelly today, don’t you think, Mom?”
“I’m Kate,” she said as she held both my hand and my gaze. “All children need jelly from time to time, I suppose,” she agreed quietly.
“Great! ‘Cause I’m here for ‘Buy a Mattie and his sister their favorite food’ day! What’s your favorite kind?” I asked the two now giggling children.
“I like grape!” shouted Mattie’s sister.
“And strawberry for me!” Mattie said loudly. “And Mommie likes the orange kind, but I think it’s yucky.”
We walked together as we finished shopping, and she told me her story. The once eerily quiet children gleefully clapped their hands and laughed as I dropped items into the cart on top of them. I paid for our groceries, and we walked out into the parking lot. She stopped when we reached her car and turned to look into my eyes one final time … the dark-haired woman with the intense, deep green eyes looked deeply into my eyes and said, her voice cracking with each word, “Why did you do this for us? You don’t even know us. Why?”
I stepped away from the cart so the two children who were eating candy bars couldn’t hear me. “I’m not sure,” I said, my own voice trembling as I spoke. “but I think it’s because Someone wanted me to.” She hugged me, and I high-fived the kids and headed toward my car, tears pouring down my face. And as I climbed into my car, the words from a note I received on Friday were pounding in my head.
“I think you’re starting to listen, even if you don’t want to.
Maybe Someone else wants you to.
Think what would happen if you opened your ears even wider.”
“Why did You do what You did for me, God?” I whispered as I tried to see through the tears and put the key in my shaking hand into the ignition. “Did You know me even then? Did You love me even then? Why do You do what You do, God?”
Ears wide open. Think what would happen if I opened my ears even wider? What if you did as well? Think what would happen indeed.
TERRIE JOHNSON is Senior Editor for a nationally recognized advertising agency in Kansas City, and author of Lord, Help! Here Comes Mom! and God Even Loves Wiener Dogs. She is an awarded public speaker, writer of the daily blog, The Tree House, mother to three adult children, and grandmother to the most beautiful, intelligent little girl ever!