I overheard an exchange between a young mother and her little girl in CVS last night. That’s how it sounded, anyway. We were separated by several aisles, so I never saw them. I was just wandering around, looking at Christmas stuff. Okay, okay I was in the candy aisle, scoping out the new Godiva offerings.

I’ve been witness to way too many scenes of grasping little kids, begging escalating to demands, then tantrums, to pay much attention. The worst was a little boy riding in a cart full of stuff at Walmart, repeating his shrill mantra over and over: “Own tat! Own tat!”. It took me about six repetitions to realize his Southern accent was mutilating “I want that!”.

These scenes usually conclude with the child screaming and the parent trying to outscream the offspring, while threatening bodily harm if the tantrum does not end NOW! The good finales are when the child is taken right out of the store. Blessed silence. The bad ones are when the parents turn into bullies and hit the child in public. Fortunately those are rare.

Rare in a special way was the CVS pair. The child desperately wanted a toy she’d spotted. There was wailing, but it was more heartbroken sounding than selfish or demanding. What caught my attention enough to pay attention was the mother’s quiet, loving voice.

She said they couldn’t get it. Maybe Santa would bring it. The child wanted it then. The mother carefully explained that they had to leave the toy there. They couldn’t afford it. Maybe it would be under the tree for Christmas, but they had to leave it in the store.

The little girl cried some more. She didn’t really understand. The mother patiently explained, until it got through to a mind too young  really know what it meant to be poor. Finally, the child stopped crying. A pitiful little voice asked, “It has to stay here?” “Yes. It has to stay here. Maybe you can have it for Christmas.”

The child accepted her disappointment with a grace that most adults can’t manage. When the little girl sniffled some more the mother said, “Come here, baby. Let me love you a little.”

It was silent after that. I imagined the mother hugging her child, offering comfort and love that hopefully the little girl will remember as she grows up and someday realize was more valuable than anything money can buy.

I didn’t hear any more from them, as they left the store, empty-handed, perhaps already anticipating a happier Christmas morning. I’d moved to the less popular office supplies aisle, fighting back tears as I listened to the final heartbreaking moments. 

I was incredibly tempted to buy the toy for them. Standing there staring at blurry ink cartridges, I wrestled with what would be the right thing to do. I don’t walk around with wads of cash, but I probably had enough on me. They would have been so happy. So grateful.

It would have become about me.

I realized I didn’t want the little girl to remember the nice stranger who had bought her a toy. I wanted her to wake up on Christmas morning, and discover the toy I hope and pray will be under the tree, thrilled that she got it after all. And I wanted that mother to be thrilled that she was able to give her child something that made her so happy.

What if some other toy she might have found to give was not as wanted? What if the child thought every time she wanted something a nice stranger would appear to grant her wish? I’m satisfied that not stepping in was the right choice. Still, come Christmas morning I’ll spare a thought for the kind mother and gracious beyond her years little girl, and hope their Christmas is merry and bright.