By Kim June Johnson
With the front doors propped open, I notice them approaching from across the street: a woman and her two small daughters. They are walking slowly toward the store and I watch them from behind my perch at the cash register counter. The woman wears a summery blouse and a long, canary yellow skirt. Her daughters skip beside her in bright dresses and rainbow rubber boots. They are so colorful and lovely, they remind me of a very small parade, or a poem that makes you want to sigh.
As they walk through the doorway, I think: that was me twelve years ago.
The woman holds her daughters’ hands, one on either side of her, as they weave through the aisles. The smallest one—two-and-a-half maybe—starts to whine and the woman picks her up and carries her on her hip, the girl’s chubby legs clamping tightly around her waist. I remember a tiered turquoise skirt I wore in those days but eventually tore in the wheel of my bicycle. Somewhere in my garage there is a bin of all the bright, small dresses, the tiny pairs of rubber boots.
They choose a few items and approach the cash counter. The woman tries to locate her wallet while her daughters circle like cats around her legs.
I smile at her. “I have two daughters too,” I say. “They’re a bit older now, but I used to dress them in dresses and rubber boots like that.”
She gives me a half-smile and fumbles for her credit card. Up close, I can see she has a bit of dried food on the front of her blouse. There are circles around her eyes and she looks like she could use a nap.
I blush, a bit embarrassed, recalling how women used to say similar things to me, in grocery stores and parking lots and libraries. Look at those pretty dresses, they’d chirp. And those tiny rubber boots! Their eyes twinkling with nostalgia. They inevitably followed up with well-meaning advice: Cherish these sweet times, they’ll be over before you know it. I accepted their comments politely, not disclosing that the reason I dressed my daughters in dresses and rubber boots was because those were the easiest things to slip on.
”It always looks so beautiful from the outside,” I say to the woman now, as I place her items in a paper bag. “But on the inside you’re mostly just tired and trying to think of what to make for dinner and making sure you have snacks packed so no one has a meltdown.”
As soon as it’s out of my mouth, I regret it. Cherish these sweet times is much more palatable. I have crossed the line into oversharing with the customers. But the woman looks at me with recognition and nods vigorously.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “I wish it were possible to feel it the way other people see it, but when you’re the one taking care of everything …” she trails off. One of her daughters has knocked a display box of organic chocolate bars off a low shelf, and the woman bends down to gather them up. I remember that too: the interruptions; thousands and thousands of unfinished conversations left hanging in the air.
I place her receipt on the counter and slide her bag of groceries toward her. The oldest girl starts to whimper. The woman blows air slowly out her mouth, picks up her bag of groceries, and heads toward the door, her daughters pulling at the edges of her skirt. Under the exit sign, the woman turns and gives me a shrug and another half-smile.
“Good luck,” I call.
After she is gone, I reach into the air and pull down the words still hanging there. There is nothing to be done with them. I hold them lovingly for a moment in my hands. Then I crumple them up, along with the grocery receipt, and throw them into the trash bin.
Kim June Johnson is a singer-songwriter, poet and mother of two fierce daughters from Vancouver Island, Canada. Before the lockdowns, she was a touring musician and hopefully will be again one day. These days, she coaches songwriters online, writes from home and works part-time at an organic food market (where this story took place). Find her at instagram.com/kimjunejohnson.
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