Miserable people don’t want to be that way. Generally, there’s something going on that’s making them miserable. That’s something my Mom used to say. Then she’d prove it, time and again. A churlish cashier didn’t have a chance.
“You probably don’t mean to be, but you’re not being very nice,” Mom would say with her charming Irish lilt and a smile on her wide mouth. This, after a drawer was slammed or an item rudely grabbed, accompanied by muttering. (These events usually occurred during a merchandise return, which Mom was expert at.) As she said the words, pointing out the misery to the miserable, we kids would cringe. What next? More slamming? Shouting? How embarrassing can a mother be. None of that ever happened. The accused would look up, right at Mom. Their brow would clear, their eyes seemed suddenly to focus. Nine times out of ten, the response went something like this: “I’m sorry. My boss put me on an extra shift. And I just want to get home.” Or “Oh no, I don’t mean to be. I’m just so tired. I was up all night with the baby.” Or “My car got a flat on the way to work and I’ll have to deal with it right after work. I’m sorry.”
It was amazing to me. But not to Mom. Everyone has a story, she’d say. They just need you to listen. Mom wasn’t a writer. Proud of her daughter “the writer,” Mom would often say, “I wish I could put words together like you.” But she could. An immigrant from Ireland at the age of 16, she was an accomplished practitioner of the great oral tradition of storytelling. She could sense a story before it was even told. Mom found stories everywhere she went, just by listening.
She talked to everyone, too. Just because she didn’t know someone, she never assumed they weren’t worth knowing. Sometimes she’d impart life lessons to us kids that were tied to personal experiences of people she'd met. “Now you see how hard Moira works. The family’s going to DisneyWorld this spring because her kids pooled all their paper route money and she picked up some extra shifts. You have to work together.”
“Who,” we’d query incredulously “is Moira? And how do you know that?”
“She’s the crossing guard," Mom would say patiently. "She told me.”
Babies born. Birthdays celebrated. Marriages broken. Vacations taken. Losses suffered. Mom somehow knew them all. Out of respect for confidences kept, I’m sure there were many more stories she never told us. Even at the end of Mom’s life, as she sat in the high-backed chair at the hospital being infused with the burning trail of chemotherapy, she listened and collected stories from the man or woman who sat next to her. Mom never accepted that somebody would be rude or mean to her because they didn’t like her personally. “It’s not me,” she’d say. “There’s something going on there.”
Maybe it was the sudden slamming of the cash register drawer or the presence of my own children that brought this lesson of my Mom’s tumbling back into my consciousness last week. I had taken my three kids to the museum on their day off from school. It was late in the afternoon and they were hungry. There was nobody else in the narrow cafeteria line and not much food left on the shelves. I didn’t even take notice of the middle-aged woman behind the counter until I realized there were no bottled beverages. I scanned the glass-covered galley counter. “Any bottled water?”
Without looking up, she pointed to the opposite end. I went back to where I’d just been. Nope. But I heard the digital trill of buttons on the register. “No water,” I said, loud enough so she could hear and hopefully unring it up. Isabella reached for a lemon square and Tiah asked for a soft pretzel. More buttons punched. Meanwhile, she’s scuffing back and forth behind the counter, moving things around, half-heartedly wiping and whole-heartedly slamming things down.
“Any soup?” I inquired tentatively.
“No, there’s no soup,” she said as sourly as if I’d just ordered mussel bisque with saffron. Mick wanted a doughnut and before I could decide one way or the other, she rang it up. Okay, doughnut goes on the tray. I wasn’t about to ask for carrot sticks or apple slices. It was obviously close to closing time and no nutritional options. But the push to order was beginning to agitate me. By the time I reached the end of the counter, she had rung up the sparse pickings on the tray.
She was glowering at me now waiting, I guessed, for quick payment. “Well,” I said. “You see, I just got a museum membership, and they said I should show it in the cafeteria to get the discount.” Still glowering. “You do give discounts to members, right?”
The hand went on the hip and I knew I was in trouble. “Let me tell you something you should remember for next time,” she said huffily. Really, she huffed. “You should show your membership before anything gets rung up.”
Oh, come on. I thought. I didn’t even have a chance to decide what I wanted before it was rung up. In that millisecond of instant defensive irritation, I’m thinking, “Listen, lady, maybe next time you could show some common courtesy and wait until I’m finished ordering before you decide to ring up random withered food items.”
But I didn’t say that. I looked at my three kids, all under 10, looking at me. They could see the lady behind the counter was not being nice to Mom. Was there going to be a fight? That’s when my own Mom burst back in my memory. I smiled a sincere smile at the woman behind the counter. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize it was so close to closing and you probably want to get out of here. I would have shown my membership, but I—”
She cut me off. “No, I’m sorry." The hand came off the hip.
“I’m just so darned tired.”
And then the story.“My grandbaby just moved back in with us. I am almost 57 years old! What am I going to do with an 8-year-old? Do you know how much energy those kids have?”
I just nodded. I have my own 9-year-old, and a 7-year-old, and a 5-year-old. But this was not the time to interject. I just listened.
“My husband and I raised our own kids already. My youngest is 28 years old. This is so hard for me. I thought I was done with all this.” And she continued to unload or, rather, to share her story for the next five minutes. I nodded. I pursed my lips sympathetically. I really did feel for her. She was in a tough position, and I knew there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of grandparents in similar situations. There was no easy way around it. Her life was changed and she was having difficulty adjusting to it. There was nothing to say to make it better. But she knew that. She just needed to get her story out.
Finally, she said again. “This is just so hard. I never expected to be raising another child at my age.” And she stopped. I couldn’t say something trite like, “It’ll get easier with time.” Maybe it wouldn’t. “Everything’s temporary.” Maybe it wasn’t.
I said, “I’ll bet your grandson will always remember what you’re doing for him.”
She finally smiled, and she had a broad smile that reminded me of my own mother. “He did say that to me the other day. He said, 'Grammy, I am so happy to be here.'”
I wished her a good day and she said she hoped I had a great weekend and I went to sit down with my kids. My Mom was right again. Everybody has a story. And if you listen, you’ll hear it. I call it the Storyteller Syndrome, but it’s also called something else. Compassion.
Causes Kellyann Zuzulo Supports
PLAN International Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation