I put the misappropriated toy gun back on the shelf. Feigning patience, I corrected my son’s impulsiveness. “No, John. Ask first.” At three years old, he should know better than to put things into the grocery cart without my permission. Then, I continued my grocery shopping wishing for a miracle, to forget, at least for one day, that I was destitute.
A divorced, unemployed mother of three pre-school children, I believed, until that morning, I had already sunk to the bottom. The mail brought with it an eviction notice. Now I faced homelessness on top of despair. I’d achieved the impossible, a new depth from which to wallow.
Self pity filled me. What had I done to deserve these troubles?
I’d been a model tenant, paying my rent on time, my home spotless. I even waxed my floors on a weekly basis. My landlady claimed she needed the apartment for a family member who would be moving to town and assured me the eviction was due to no fault on my part. No fault except that I lived in space she thought she needed more than I did.
Humiliation pricked me like a thousand sewing needles. I didn’t blame my landlady, at least not intellectually. If in her shoes, I’d have done the same. And I’d have gone on my merry way believing my good tenant should have no problems in finding another place to rent. And, like her, I’d have given that tenant a letter of reference. But finding an affordable apartment with my limited resources in a safe neighborhood posed challenges beyond my scope of solvability.
Tomorrow lay before me like an unwritten movie script, but I knew the logline: A divorced woman and her three children huddle together in a cardboard box.
I’d despised my life as a welfare Mom, but held some gratitude that the subsidy check had arrived the same day as the eviction notice. At least we’d hit the streets well fed.
I shrugged my shoulders and prayed that God would somehow work a miracle on my behalf. But my sour mood trenched in, disbelief my war buddy.
The luxury of a babysitter was not in my budget. I bundled up my brood and headed to the supermarket, mentally checking my list and laboring over which items I might be able to scratch off – my resources insufficient to cover the long list of needs. I could forego the floor polish. I wouldn’t be able to wash and wax the street.
Putting the baby in one cart, I lifted the other two children into another and pulled it behind me. I choo-chooed my way through the supermarket, a maternal steam engine with a trailing caboose. Engrossed in my immediate labors, I’d examine an item, look at my list, and put it in the cart only to take it back out and in again. How could I decipher if toilet paper were more critical than toothpaste?
Steeped in my depressive state, I hadn’t given a thought how the sight might appear to someone else. I unglued my eyes from the list just in time to witness John lean over his cart and dump a handful of candy bars into mine.
My howls echoed through the store like canyon winds. “What are you doing! Don’t even think you’re getting candy.”
Feeling like Snow White’s evil step-mother, I heaved the treats back on the shelf with one huge huff of indignation, letting my anger dam the flood of tears ready to burst through my steeled exterior. Even so, wet trickles slid down my cheeks as John’s little face turned from rosy innocence to gray fright, his wails even louder than my reprimands.
As if pulled out of myself I could see myself screaming. I caught the elongated, disapproving glance of the woman five feet down our aisle. I saw myself in frozen ugliness, the reactions of nearby customer’s disapprovals flickering like flashes from a B-rated horror film. I wondered if this was what a nervous breakdown looked like.
From somewhere, staccato-like bursts of joy pierced the nightmarish scene. I reeled to find their source. No one around except a near hysterical, rotund man, a department store Santa type even sporting a long white beard and black boots but sans the red suit. He bowled over, holding his middle, gifting the floor with his peals of laughter, his antics in sync with my real time while the shadows around us continued in slow-motion.
Initially, I raged within to think anyone could so obtusely enjoy my pain. As I passed from participant to observer, surveying the surreal, I felt a growing pressure in my abdomen. I fought the emotion as I scanned the absurdity surrounding us. But, within seconds of the sight of him, my own gurgles of laughter sprayed the atmosphere like a happy geyser.
I don’t know how long time stood still for the near Santa look-alike and me. But when the bustling resumed and I returned to the here and now, my mood had miraculously transformed from bitterness to hope. In that instant, despair fled and a cotton-cloud of peace hovered over me. I didn’t know how, but I knew we’d find suitable living arrangements. Even if a less desirable neighborhood would be our lot, the God of Love would watch over us.
Nothing life sent our way could take away my faith.
I gathered up the rejected candy bars and cradled them back to my cart.
“Just because I love you,” I said, and kissed my child on the top of his head. Beams of delight replaced the horror in his eyes. Soon harmonious giggles filled the air as we careened toward the checkout.
But, shouldn’t I thank the large-bellied man for his gift? His amusement, whether intended or not, had brought me from the teetering edge of desperation to an appreciation of all that was still good in my life. Laughter reminded me that my children and our times together should be the stuff of my conscious stream, not the reams of disappointments that would come and go in this life.
Perhaps I might be powerless against a deserting spouse or a greedy landlord, but I did have the power of choice to believe or not believe. I could let circumstances devour my faith, or I could hold onto it as precious gold.
I’d been taught since childhood that God loved me and had a plan for my life. But I’d never dared believed its truth. I wanted to let him know how much his laughter had changed my world.
I looked for him in the place I last saw him. An empty seat was all I could find. I wandered the aisles, but his pot-bellied frame had evaporated into another realm.
I’d heard that God sometimes sends his angels to us at odd times, in odd places, and perhaps in the form of an obese elderly man on a supermarket bench. Had I been so graced?
I won’t know this side of heaven for sure. But whenever I drift into a woe-is-me attitude, the image of that jolly, fat elf never fails to turn my mindset back to joy.
Linda Rondeau is the author of America II: The Reformation (Trestle Press) and The Other Side of Darkness (Pelican Ventures) which won the 2012 Selah Award for best debut novel. She is the editor of Geezer Guys and Gals blog, a multi-author blog for and by seniors, and also blogs at This Daily Grind.