“Who is she talking to?” my older daughter says looking at the baby inquisitively. Our big silver SUV is bumping along crowded gray streets with cars lined up like dominoes. Lights flash yellow to red, horns honk. It’s rush hour. I look back. The baby holds her chubby fingers to her eyes, a strawberry-blond curl falling over her tiny fingernails. Then, at once, she pulls them away, revealing a bright smile. “Peek-a-boo!” “Peek-a, Peek-a!”, she says, her toddler gibberish muted by the closed glass of the car window.
I look over to the SUV, waiting at the light next to us. A mom with a blonde bob, tired eyes, and a cheerful face looks back at us. Her teenage daughter sits next to her in the passenger seat. They are both leaned towards our car. The mother waves, and the daughter clamps her hands over her eyes, springing them away with enthusiasm. Seconds later, she mouths the words, “Peek-a-boo!” through closed glass.
The light turns green, cars rumble forward, and disappear into the distance. “Buh Bye!” my baby daughter waves. She smiles and flaps her hands at the glass. “Buh Bye! Buh Bye!” she says with a passion usually reserved by adults for only the closest of friends.
The cart goes bump, bump, bump as we roll haphazardly through the superstore. Something indistinguishable is stuck to the wheel causing the basket to veer uncontrollably left to right. We are deep into the second hour of a never-ending trip to buy groceries and school supplies as well as needed items for our office. I squint my tired eyes to look down crowded aisles lit by harshly bright neon lighting. We take a sharp turn towards the meat section where refrigerated cases line the wall.
As I stand staring at the shelf in front of us, pondering the difference between organic and cage-free natural eggs, I see an elderly woman waving. She is hunched over from the strain of walking many steps through never-ending aisles. Her steel gray hair and kind eyes are reminiscent of my grandmother’s. Upon seeing us they light up with sudden recognition. My grandmother passed when I was in college. I rack my brain. Do I know this woman?
I proceed through this mental exercise, to no avail. As I am doing this, I see her cover her face, then peel back her hands and smile. I look at my baby daughter. She beams; “Peak-a! Peak-a! Booooo!” she says. The lady smiles back at her with delight, and approaches with a bounce in her step.
My baby daughter reaches her arms out to the woman like she is asking for a hug. The woman grabs her tiny outstretched hands with her own hands that shake a little as she says, “Hello, sweet angel.” She continues, “I have great-grandchildren your age, but they don’t live around here.” She tells us briefly about her children, grandkids, and great-grandkids. “What a beautiful family! God bless you.” she says, releasing the baby’s hands and walking back to her cart. Baby waves and reaches out her hands to the woman like she is saying goodbye to a long-lost relative. The woman’s face lights up as she waves back.
We have this experience frequently these days. Strangers look back at us from adjoining restaurant booths or break the silence of the doctor’s office waiting room with a wave and a peek-a-boo. Often they are parents with much older children, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. But sometimes they are awkward teenagers or kids sitting alone with sadness in their eyes.
People shuffle all around them running errands, trying to get one more thing done. We are so used to hurrying from one place to another with our eyes glued to the path in front of us, not interacting. I would probably pass by without noticing too, but these days if I do, I hear a tiny voice say, “peek-a-boo”.
It seems like such a simple gesture. She doesn’t have the language at 17 months to say much more. But I swear people see her tiny smiling face and bright eyes and remember the popular refrain, “I see you.”
Experiencing each interaction makes me realize the gravity of my job as a parent. She takes all the love that I pour into her as her mother and sends it out into the world, multiplying it. Not knowing yet to fear rejection or the vulnerability that kindness exposes her to, she just smiles at each person that passes by, and if they smile back, she engages them in a game.
As a mother and teacher, I wonder what problems could be solved if we all looked around for the lonely, the forgotten, and the isolated and somehow said, “I see you” instead of hurrying by in a rush to check one more item off our list.
I think that as adults we often think of kindness as a gesture we must plan out or orchestrate based on particular circumstances. But I have come to realize through the bright smile and innocent actions of a 1-year-old that many times the opportunity for kindness is easy and right in front of us.
Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “hi” to another person in a crowded store or through a shiny car window. Recognizing the humanity in another is a simple kindness that forms the basis for all others. It can be a spark that brightens even the darkest day.