I took Ellie to the grocery store today. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and I felt full of energy and strength.
So off we went to the supermarket, armed with an extra diaper, some wipes, a few graham crackers and our grocery list. I put the baby into the seat in front of the cart, but realized quickly that the straps were too darn small to go around her, even at her tender age of 8 months.
So we went through the store with me carefully holding both of her hands as I steered the cart. When I needed to dash away to grab an item off the shelves, I did it with my heart in my mouth, fearing that she’d topple out and I’d lose my favorite job as “Nonni in Chief”.
We were doing fine, except for the fact that every adult over the age of 19 had to stop us to say how adorable Ellie is. Truth to tell? I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I kind of loved it when strangers would smile at her and she’d look up at me with those deep brown eyes for reassurance.
Anyway, as we made our way through the store we were greeted by two grampas, one grandma, a doting aunt and three young mothers.
I thought that we were on our way out the door when I suddenly noticed that Ellie was staring up with serious intensity at someone off to our right. I looked over my shoulder and saw a tall, thin man in a tattered black sweatshirt. He was looking at Ellie with the same seriousness, but I saw that his blue eyes were rimmed with red. He had a scruffy beard and lank, not-too-clean hair. His arms were cradled, holding an array of tall beer cans.
When our eyes met, the man quickly looked away.
“Wow,” I said to him as we passed, “She’s really looking at you so seriously!” I smiled in his general direction, but didn’t think too much about it. After all, I had just spent an hour chatting with various strangers who had paused to admire the baby.
But this time it was a little bit different. As I made my casual comment, the tall man met my eyes with a look that almost seemed like a mix of hope and embarrassment. He tilted his head forward a bit, his black hood falling almost over his eyes.
“That is a really beautiful baby,” he said solemnly.
“Thank you!” I replied.
He stopped walking, and I saw that his hands were shaking a bit. He looked me right in the eyes with a sadness and intensity that tugged at my heart.
“No,” he said. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say that.”
I didn’t know how to answer him. I had such a clear image of this man, struggling and sad, gazing in silence at beautiful children.
We both moved on, and found ourselves in the same checkout line, where my friend Martha was waiting to ring us up. I caught her eye as the scruffy man placed his beer cans on her counter. Before she could finish his order, though, he turned abruptly and walked back to Ellie and I.
He reached out his right hand, his fingers stained and bent. He gently touched the soft hair on the top of her head, and leaned close to her face.
“My God bless you, beautiful baby, every day for the rest of your life.” Ellie looked at him, serious and intent, meeting his gaze. I was silent, not sure of what to say.
He straightened up, and looked at me.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Karen,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Michael,” he answered holding out his hand.
We shook hands, and I was surprised at how strong and sure his palm felt in mine.
“Nice to meet you, Michael,” I said, “Good luck to you.”
“Good luck?” He laughed, and pointed to Ellie sitting quietly in the grocery cart. “I already have good luck.”
I have no idea where Michael is tonight. Whether he is warm, safe, fed, comforted. But all afternoon, as Ellie and I had lunch and played and sang and as I rocked her to sleep in my arms, all I could wonder was this. Was Michael someone’s Daddy? Did he once hold a baby of his own and gaze at her with love and tenderness? I don’t know.
But I do know that at one point in time he was some woman’s son. He was the beloved baby cradled in someone’s arms.
Whatever has happened to this man in his life, I find it profoundly beautiful that he has kept his gentle spirit intact, and that given the slightest encouragement, he is still able to share that spirit with strangers.