Seeing behind the mask

She greeted me with enthusiasm, her face mask a thick white line under brown, clear eyes. “Good afternoon and welcome.” 

I nodded my head and responded, “Hi. Thank you.” The store seemed barren, wide aisles askew with random items and an occasional plastic bin containing bargains and markdowns. I pulled a shopping cart away from the slightly crooked fleet of various colored vessels and began my journey. The cashier stepped out from behind the counter and began tidying up behind me, humming an unfamiliar tune as she moved about. 

I rounded the first corner, catching her eye once again as she continued her task. I noticed her worn and tattered sweater peeking out from behind her apron and her scuffed moccasins. She walked with a bit of a limp and I recognized the telltale signs of osteoarthritis in the slope of her back. I could certainly identify with her physical challenges, since I, too, was feeling the effects of the rather dreaded aging process. “Do you think spring will ever arrive?” I asked.

She laughed, her tone rich and eager, “Well, that’s Maine for you.” We both laughed and the doorbell announced the arrival of another customer. The cashier hurried toward the patron, her eyes reflecting a hint of fear. I resumed my exploration, looking for a specific item; a strong canvas tote I could use for groceries. 

I headed toward the store entrance once again and could not avoid overhearing the conversation taking place between the store employee and the patron. There was an obvious disagreement between the two, and in no time I discovered that the patron was in actuality the employee’s son. He was pleading with his mother for money and she was quietly and patiently explaining to him that she simply did not have the amount of money he requested. She urged him to leave the store, assuring him they would discuss things further when she finished work for the day. 

She turned toward me, her eyes filled with apology. “Just a moment, Miss. I am sorry.” She bowed her head toward me and asked her son to wait for just a moment. He slammed out of the store, mumbling words I could not decipher. Nonchalantly, I asked if there were any canvas totes. She shook her head, unable to speak through the tears I could now see in those brown eyes. 

I wheeled the cart down a random aisle, finding some all-occasion cards which I selected quickly. I returned to the counter and slid the cards under the plexiglass shield toward her. She pulled her face mask away from her face then and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. 

“I am sorry you had to witness that, Miss. You see, he’s back home with me now and I am trying to save him; just trying to save him.” Her voice trembled.

I reached up and pulled my own mask down, nodding my head. I said nothing to her but I hoped my expression would speak a thousand words. We completed the transaction and I left the store, thanking her and telling her to take care. I wanted more than anything to reach out and give her a hug or squeeze her hand, but of course, these powerful and meaningful little acts of concern and empathy are tucked away from society as our planet heals both physically and emotionally.

We continue on our life journey, never fully aware of each other’s pain or sorrow or discontent. Every once in a while, however, we are handed the opportunity to glimpse what is behind the mask and we are reminded of our own humanity and vulnerability and struggle. I believe we must lower the mask from time to time — even if it is for just a moment — and reach out. There is no shame in the need for an understanding ear or a tender heart or yes, even a hug. 

Please stay safe, my friends, and remember to be kind. 

Belinda Ouellette lives in Caribou with her Goldendoodle, Barney.  You may email her at belindaouellette9@gmail.com.

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