Sunday, July 22, 2007

Making acquaintances

I just wanted to get through the checkout line.

It was the first time I'd been away from Champ in nine months and three weeks and I wanted to get back home.

I had taken Ittybit on an adventure to the grocery store and left the boy with my parents. It was only a mile away but it felt like a million. Usually a grocery store adventure entails racing up and down the aisles in the souped up shopping cart, and getting only half of what we intended to purchase. Sometimes it means getting a few unintended items, such as Hershey's Kisses, too. On this day, however, I was on a mission: hydrogen peroxide (or as Ittybit pronounces it "Higher Than Rock Slide") and some special ice cream for a good little girl.

Since the open checkout lanes were few and long, I steared us toward the self-serve aisle with our two items. While I was trying pitifully to scan the barcode of the brown bottle an elderly man in a motorized shopping cart wheeled up behind us.

"May I talk to your daughter," he asked quietly. "I have girls, too," he said, "but they're 14 and 16 now."

He was obviously a grandfather. His name was Tom. It was also obvious that he finds the little ones to be oodles of fun.

Ittybit and he spoke for a long time. He asked her age, and what she liked to do. She largely ignored his questions and answered with a random assortment of thoughts of her own.

She told him "people always say 'congratulations' when you have a new baby at home like I do."

He couldn't believe his ears. "Did she just say that? Wow! She's quite a fine speaker. How old is she did you say?"

"My baby doesn't eat ice cream yet but when he does I'm going to show him how. I'm a big sister you know."

"That's marvelous," he replied, winking at me and telling me about his grandchildren who were currently traveling without him. "She's at a wonderful age ... my favorite age."

Then she had a few questions of her own. "Are you shopping for groceries? I see you have bananas. I like bananas but we don't need any. We have some home. Where are you going now? Do you like ice cream?"

Years ago I'm sure I might have been embarrassed by the 20 questions. I might have tried to shush her and continue my fruitless endeavor to get the self-checker to acknowledge my existence. But the magical force that draws people to small children draws me in, too. Of course I noticed how friendly people are when you have a newborn. They ooh and ah and tell you all sorts of things about themselves. Babies are a ticket to making acquaintances. They are the impetus to approach a stranger and smile, something so few of us ever do anymore.

The internet hasn't necessarily taken away our ability to relate to one another in face to face, but I'm not sure how it will make real life meetings any easier. While some would tell you anonymity makes us ill-mannered out in cyberspace, others, especially those who are shy, can be something they are not in real life: personable and brave. The sad thing is that while we're honing our skills in a virtual world after the kids go to sleep, in the grocery store we never meet anyone. We don't even have to practice etiquette with cashiers thanks to the miracle of un-manned merchandizing.

And yet the magic of children only lasts so long. When they grow up, like Tom's grandkids have done, your little family unit becomes invisible again or worse, temper tantrums and hormonal outbursts give folks something to sneer at.

I was thinking about all this when Tom announced he had to go. He still had items to get and he could sense we had somewhere else to be. "Well, sweetie, I have to go now but I do hope to see you next time."

Ittybit said goodbye, but she must have been thinking about the encounter just as I had been, because she stopped him to ask if we were "making his acquaintance?"

I thought I was going to swallow my teeth when she came out with that little nugget of wisdom, then I looked and him and realized he looked like he was about to swallow his, too.

"I really, really hope to see you again," he told her. And I hoped so, too.

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