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The Simple Encounters Matter

February 28, 2024

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“You’re incredibly beautiful. Did you know that?”

I looked up, very much startled. A man I’d never met was smiling down at me with a dreamy, somewhat wistful expression. We were in the Crayola museum in the Mall of America, and I was seated at a table with my five sons, working on an art project. The man didn’t seem threatening, but my mind raced to formulate an appropriate response to this outrageous opener.  

Noticing my discomfort, he shook himself a bit, as if he were waking up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe that was inappropriate. I wasn’t hitting on you or anything, I didn’t mean it like that. I was just watching you play with your kids, and you all looked so beautiful. It just felt like . . . maybe I should tell you?” Now he looked troubled.

I thanked him then, genuinely touched, and asked him about himself. He answered vaguely and turned the question back to me. “What do you do?”

“Oh, I’m a writer. I write articles for magazines and websites and things.”

“Wow! Is there a special school for that?”

“Not exactly. I studied philosophy, actually. But teaching didn’t work out that well with my family and all, so I started writing for money instead.”

“But you taught in university once? That’s awesome. I tried to go to college, but while I was there I was abducted by aliens, and they messed up my brain so that now I can’t remember anything. I really liked college though; it was fun to learn things. I’m sad I couldn’t finish.”

He certainly looked sad. It was clear that he was not joking with me. I thought for a moment. “Well,” I finally said, “there are lots of ways to learn things, even if you don’t have much money or memory. You should never feel like you’ve missed your last chance to learn something new.”

It’s easy to fall into the habit of assuming that people are mostly annoyed by your kids.

We spent the next ten minutes discussing this. He said he’d like to learn to cook better, and I told him about some favorite websites and cooking shows that might help. In a moment of inspiration, I took a coloring sheet and wrote down the references. No need to remember. Just put it in your pocket.  

On that note, we said goodbye. I never saw him again.

I have encounters like this occasionally, especially on outings with the kids. As a young mom, I took the kids for many outings, especially on summer afternoons when our small house got unbearably hot. In the early years, I was constantly on edge in public places, worrying that people might be bothered by the children’s noise or rambunctious behavior. Americans tend to assume that it is the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children are not a nuisance in public, and a surprising number of people are quite happy to tell you when they think you’ve fallen short. I wish I had a nickel for every time a stranger scolded me in public on a winter day, being of the opinion that at least one of my boys was underdressed.

Given that reality, it’s easy to fall into the habit of assuming that people are mostly annoyed by your kids. For open-to-life married Catholics, it’s just a fact our approach to family life is very much countercultural in our time. We’re used to being viewed as weirdos, and it’s easy to adopt a defensive posture. So I was thrown for a loop one day when an elderly woman, stepping onto an elevator with me and my (then) two young children, expressed a desire to give the boys “a treat.” She opened her purse and gave me two dollars. My first impulse was to refuse, but I realized that that would be ungracious. So I thanked her, accepted the money, and promised to spend it on ice cream. She warmly agreed to that, and we did in fact stop at a McDonald’s on the way home. As we licked our cones, I reflected on a point I had not much considered before. Sometimes people enjoy seeing kids in public. 

More such encounters would follow, but a particularly poignant one took place in a Culver’s a couple of years ago. We were again eating ice cream, celebrating some occasion or other, when an elderly man stepped up to our table. He was not well dressed. He had been dining alone a few tables over. His expression was a little bit hard, with traces of dogged determination, as he surveyed the five boys all crowded into a booth with me. “I could give them something,” he finally said. It was clear he was working through an incomplete thought.

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I smiled but didn’t say anything. I understand now what’s going on in this kind of moment. The man wanted to do something for the children, to connect with them in some small way, but he was having trouble figuring out the appropriate way to proceed. We waited patiently while he thought it over. Then he dug in his coat pocket and produced a handful of wrapped candies: life savers, peppermints, strawberry chews. He dropped them on the table with a clatter, and then nodded with satisfaction. 

“Thank you, sir.” I said, respectfully. Grasping my look, the boys also chorused their thanks. “That’s very kind of you,” I added, softly. I wondered if he would want to talk further, as people sometimes do, but he showed no such inclination. His mission complete, he ambled slowly away, now looking peaceful and pleased.

My heart was breaking a little bit, but also very full. “Thank you, Lord,” I whispered. What an honor to be able to bring a moment of warmth into that man’s day. 

It’s funny. I am aware that people have yelled at me several times over the years because my children were talking and laughing too loud, or running in a hallway, or not wearing mittens on a day when somebody thought they should. Those conversations were unpleasant, but over the years, the hostile confrontations seem largely to have blurred together and faded. But I don’t think I will ever forget the encounters related above. They mattered. 

They mattered, in the first place, because I was able to give those people something simply by being present in a visible place with my family. Our world is full of desperately lonely people, many of whom are ravenous for any sign of life, joy, or human connection. For every person who is irritated by the child who ran in front of her cart at the grocery store, there may be another whose day was made by the heartwarming sight of my sons throwing a football in the patch of grass outside. Even for people not ready to entertain Catholic doctrine on marriage, sexuality, and family life, laughing children may represent a fairly persuasive argument. No one really wants to live in a lonely, childless world. 

The encounters mattered too because in them, I met people who gave me something very precious. Looking at my family from the outside, they could see something that I, in all the stress and anxiety of the daily scramble, too easily forget. They saw the value of my children and the bond that they share with each other and me. They saw how fine it is for a family to enjoy little moments together, laughing in a Culver’s booth or working together on an art project. They saw what a blessing it is to have a life full of love and meaning.

It’s incredibly beautiful. Did I know?