As we rifled through the size 10-12 girls’ T-shirts at H & M, her voice carried thick across the racks and hit square in our backs.
“WOULD YOU STOP YELLING?!”
“That’s slightly ironic,” I said to Sici.
“What’s ironic?” J asked.
“It’s when someone says or does something and then tells someone else not to do it, and it doesn’t make sense,” Sici explained.
I looked over in the direction of the deep-throated yell and saw a large woman in a bright pink shirt and grown-out bleached blonde ponytail, picking through children’s clothes. Her gaze was set on the rack, and her mouth turned down at the corners.
A boy of about eight with tired eyes stood out of her arm’s reach, and a little ponytailed girl of around five stood with her back to us, closer to her mother’s side.
I hoped her explosion was that moment known by most mothers at the very edge of losing it, when we hear our words escape bitter and ugly and step back from the edge.
Step back from the edge, I thought.
But I’ve known times I didn’t step back from the edge, and I feared that for her, for them. Here, in front of all these people to see their shame. I sensed it might be coming, and I wondered if she is like this here, what is she like at home?
“If you DON’T get off that FLOOR, I’m GOING TO….” she roared and then trailed off in fiercely whispered rage as she bent over her daughter, attracting the stares of my girls and glances between shoppers. I was afraid to look at the woman for fear of what she might do or say to me, or mine.
I heard the woman’s voice soften and looked over to see her holding up and smiling at a girls’ shirt.
“How cute,” she cooed.
She yanked at her daughter’s arm, yelling again, and I suddenly needed all three of my daughters beside me, pulled them close from racks and started praying. “God help her find a place of self-control and peace. God, help her children.”
She seemed ready to strike them at any moment, and all I knew to do was pray.
“I told you GET UP!” she screamed.
“It is not OK for adults to treat children that way,” I said to my girls, their eyes wide and confused. “It is never OK.”
I wondered if I should tell somebody, call someone.
Finally ready, I said, “Girls, let’s go,” and we walked to the register so we could pay for our purchases and get out.
I felt guilty with the freedom to leave, having done nothing. These children with no way out, drowning in her tides.
We walked up to the counter, and I heard her voice sharp behind us, “Stand next to me!” and “I bought you these clothes, and you’re whining?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my girls watching her.
Look away, I wanted to tell them. Look away.
What if instead I were fearless and could look her dead in the eye and say, “Stop it! Just stop it!” or ask, “What are you doing to these precious children?” Or speak a word — what word — that would snap her to tears, to calm or to memories of being a girl herself in that long buried and afraid place.
But I swiped my debit card, took the bag, grabbed my girls’ hands, and we left.
I never truly looked in those children’s faces.
My heart raced, my stomach lurched.
As we walked through the mall, I said, “That woman must have had a hard life, and I’m sure that’s made her angry. She probably hasn’t been treated well herself, but there is no excuse for treating children that way. It’s the job of adults to keep kids safe.”
I wanted to keep talking, try to allay their fears, but there was no way to make this make sense. This grownup so out of control, so clearly unsafe.
As we walked, I kept thinking about the boy’s sidelong glance and the girl’s little back and the terror it must be to live in that house.
I thought of the times I have scared my own children with wild eyes and pointed fingers and a voice I knew must sit scary in the space around them. I thought of the times I’ve wanted to pull my words back into my body and feel the pain of them again and again because I didn’t want them to live in my angry tide.
At times, I feel acutely the stirrings of anger misplaced and myself on the edge, and as much as I wanted to judge this woman, I realized part of me is her.
I have the capacity to harm. The capacity to do damage. Every day, moment after moment a choice to bless or to curse. To recognize my limitations, know my weakness, cry out. Breathe in love, receive love, give love. Or not.
Mostly, I choose well. But I fail — how I fail — and my girls feel my failures.
And for these children?
I have known them. Awash in their parents’ pain and fear, trying to walk themselves from the edge. These children, eyes gradually dimming, as they look for something, someone to cling to. Some reason for hope.
After visiting a few more stores in search of a late summer swimsuit, we found our way to a discount department store. With no success, I took the girls’ hands in mine to leave and heard her again. She was in the middle of the women’s clothing rack, screaming at one of her children.
I turned to the security guard, standing at the store’s entrance and felt I needed to say something before I walked out.
“I don’t know what you can do in terms of child protection, but I saw this woman in the mall earlier,” I said. “I didn’t see her strike her kids, but she’s continued to yell at them, and I feel like she’s on the edge. I feel like she could do something to harm them at any time.”
I struggled to know what to say. “Would you please watch her while she’s here?”
“I will. Thank you,” he said.
Then my girls and I — we left the store.
“It’s the job of adults to protect children,” I told them.
And we walked close.
And I prayed.
And it didn’t feel like enough.
Today, would you send up a prayer for these children and this mother?