Everyone we meet eyes with offers half a smile in return, but there are those who smile a little more sincerely – the women who smile at you as you push a cart full of children and vegetables through your grocery store.
The Young Woman
She is in the produce aisle, collecting leeks, eggplant, asparagus – vegetables for fancy dinners – for people who cook dinner without anyone clinging onto their legs. She’ll stand at the stove making risotto for an hour, dreaming about the future. She glances at your children and smiles, nudging her partner’s arm. You notice the wedding rings on their fingers, new and shiny. You want to pull her aside, and whisper in her ear, “Yes, they are cute, but it’s more work than you think it’s going to be. It is wonderful, yes, but it is hard.” But you don’t, because you remember being her and holding your husband’s hand while whispering to him, “Aren’t they cute? When should we have some of our own?”
The Woman with Small Children
You squeeze past each other in the cereal aisle, your enormous car-shaped shopping carts bumping into each other, each knocking over boxes of Cocoa Puffs and Raisin Bran, respectively. You give each other the look of solidarity, the nod that says, I know. I know what it is like to drag children who would rather be anywhere but here through aisle after aisle as you search for deals, calculate price per ounce, flip through your coupons, and stop hands from bringing unwanted boxes of Oreos and rice noodles into the cart. I know what it’s like to listen to the baby scream on the way home because he is desperately hungry but won’t be nursed until you’ve put the milk and the chicken in the fridge and made the older one a PB&J because he can’t wait forty five minutes for his lunch while you rock the little one to sleep. You don’t always make eye contact with her. When her kid is screaming and sobbing because he can’t have a snack right now and because it is hard to be three, you have agreed to look away, to pretend you don’t see, to promise you won’t judge the entirety of her parenting on this one moment.
The Woman with Older Children
She is in the meat aisle, asking her daughter who walks beside her if she wants spaghetti and meatballs or turkey burgers for dinner tonight. The girl, dressed in a sweatshirt with her school’s name emblazoned above a volleyball answers her. You marvel at the moment, and find yourself wondering if your children will really ever be that tall, that independent. She catches you staring, and smiles. “It gets easier,” she promises, looking bemused and relieved that her children no longer throw tantrums and wear diapers. You believe her, and hold on to that truth when moments later your toddler starts climbing on top of the car and your baby insists he wants to nurse right now and latches on while still seated in the cart. You wonder if she ever misses this; you wonder if you will.
The Woman with her First Grandchild
She comes up to you as you walk past the greeting cards, brightly asking, “How old are they?” You tell her, three and one, and she proceeds to tell about her first granddaughter, fifteen months old, living in Idaho, and how her son’s wife, who lives in Maine, is expecting their first grandson next June. She stares at yours, smiling. You know that she wishes she was as close to her own grandchildren as she is to your children right now, and despite her smile, you can hear the sadness between her words. You picture your own mother in a grocery store 2,000 miles away telling the mother in line behind her how her two boys look about the same age as her grandsons.
The Elderly Woman
You wave her in front of you in the checkout line, knowing your cart overflowing with graham crackers, diapers, and fruit will take significantly longer to check out than her half gallon of milk and loaf of bread. She insists that you go first, and spends the next ten minutes waving and blowing kisses to your baby who has found his new best friend. She says nothing, and you wonder how many children of her own she has birthed, how many grandchildren she has hugged, how many great grandchildren she has held. As you leave, she grabs your arm, “They are beautiful,” she says.
She is right. Your two boys, who have sobbed, accidentally attempted theft, charmed half the store, and are now munching happily on animal crackers, are beautiful.
There are women who have walked through this store, through the journey of motherhood before you, and there are those that will follow in your footsteps. These women, and their smiles, are beautiful as well.