A few weeks ago, I bought 10 pounds of oranges from a woman standing on a street corner. I’d passed her a few times throughout my day; she was out there for hours. Her makeshift storefront was sparse: several large bags of fruit on a plastic folding table, a similarly cheap metal chair.
She also had a stroller. A bucket carseat. A baby.
It was a Sunday, and I passed her as I drove my own baby, snug in his own carseat, to and from somewhere. I passed her as I took the dogs to the park. I passed her driving home from the grocery store. I passed her as she held her child; I passed her when she was sitting, talking to her girl.
There wasn’t a car for her to retreat to; I didn’t see a backpack that might have been full of snacks, or a bottle of water for her to drink. At one point, I drove by as she rocked her child to sleep, a blanket thrown over the little girl’s small form, her daughter held close in the universal and unspoken posture of baby-trust.
The previous night had been a hard one for my son and me; he’d woken up several times, had been inconsolable. As usual, it was impossible to know the cause of his sadness: teething, the temperature of the room, a bad dream? I held him, sang to him, let him be, returned to him. Eventually, finally, he went back to sleep but I was exhausted, bone tired in the way I’ve learned you can be when your child hasn’t slept well at all for a few nights in a row.
Maybe this mom had a similar night with her daughter. Or maybe they had slept well, but still: she was spending all day on the street corner, taking care of her little one, doing what needed to be done. I would do anything for my son and yet it was something that seemed beyond me, bringing into question my own abilities, my own limits.
Finally, I stopped and bought the oranges I could buy with the cash I had. I told her I had a baby too. I asked how old her daughter was, and in broken English, she told me: 10 months. We smiled at one another, and momentarily I imagined we traversed language barriers: You know how it is. Hang in there. Wild and beautiful and hard, isn’t it?
I found myself wanting to ask if she needed anything, but I didn’t know how; I wanted to ask in the spirit of one mom asking another mom, not knowing any better about how to do any of this, asking in a spirit of camaraderie and admiration. I wanted to know if she needed a snack, or diapers, or anything else. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to offend her; I didn’t want her to think that I knew what she needed, or that I was suggesting I know anything at all about raising a child that she does not already know. So much more likely, it is the other way around.
When I got home, I worried I hadn’t done more. That morning, I’d sorted through my son’s clothes, the ones that had been handed down to me by friends and looked nearly new. There were so many of them. Now, with this woman and her daughter in mind, I returned to the piles I’d made hours before, looking through them to see what clothes may have looked more feminine. I put together a box, adding a few things for the mom and some toys my son had not yet discovered.
It didn’t feel right, but I didn’t know what did. And yet, by the time I drove back to the corner, the mom and her baby were gone.
Since having my child, I feel connected to other mothers in a way I didn’t expect I would. I understand that love now; before, I could not feel its depths. I think about the moms who have less than I do, not just in terms of stuff but in terms of time, money, and support. I know they love their children exactly as much as I love my baby, and I look around at all I have, all that my child has, and I think: there has to be a way to share more.
As I consider my life, I know I want to be someone who lives in a spirit of active love, who teaches my son about privilege and about our responsibility to address it. To dismantle it, in favor of creating a system where people are able to truly thrive. I want to make sure that we not only see the people standing on the street corner as part of our community and as fellow humans with as much value, mystery, beauty, and individuality as any of us; I also want to do what we can to change the systems that keep us from engaging in that way.
I don’t know how to do this, though I am trying to figure it out. I donate financially to organizations doing some of this work, and I try to fill needs when I come across them, in person or in things like wishlists online for smaller groups. It is not enough, and I understand that.
I haven’t seen the woman and her baby since that Sunday a few weeks ago. I will continue to look for them, though. And if I see them again, this time, I’ll be more prepared to find the words to simply say: I see how hard you’re working. Is there anything you need? Anything at all, that I may be able to give?