That Place - FamilyEducation

That Place

February 19,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I ran to the store for the third time in three days yesterday. I hate weeks like this week, when time constraints prevent us from making one big shopping run on the weekend, because I spend the week shopping in bits and spurts and spending too much money in the process, I'm sure--no, I know. The other day I joked with the cashier at Harris Teeter about a giveaway she was plugging--log onto the website and enter my name to win $1,000 in groceries. "Wow," I said. "That won't buy much." And she agreed, and we laughed, but it's really not funny, when you think about it. Yesterday T. and I did a grocery run before we headed over to L.'s school to pick him up. Sometimes, when I'm pushing the cart through the store, I hear bits and pieces of conversations--snippets and glimpses into other people's lives. I think to myself I could be friends with her or, I can't believe I just heard that, or what is he thinking? It's almost like in the old days, when cordless phones first came out and you could sometimes catch strange staccato pieces of other people's conversation breaking into your own, completely out of context, but there all the same. Yesterday at the store was like that for me--and two conversations I overheard stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon. I'm in my own world when I'm grocery shopping, thinking about this recipe or that one. Other times T. chatters nonstop and I'm listening to her with half my brain, while the other half is trying desperately to remember why I'm standing in front of the jarred sauces and what I needed in the first place. I spent most of my shopping on Wednesday an aisle or two behind another mom who was pushing two boys in the front of a massive spaceship cart. She was talking to them about dinner plans and school parties, but in-between she was frazzled, mediating conflicts (He pinched me! He's sitting in my spot!). T. and I stopped near her in the pasta aisle. "Look, she's in the baby seat," one of the boys said about T., and pointed at her (never mind that HE was, too, just a spaceship one). I didn't want T. getting any hang-ups, so I quickly said, "Yup, but she's a big girl who still fits in there." "It's convenient," the mom said. "Enjoy it while you can," I said. "I often wish I could stuff my eight-year-old into one of these." She laughed and said she had an eight-year-old, too, and she knew exactly what I meant. We had a little connection, she and I--over something not entirely spoken out loud, but understood. It was smiles and chatter for the rest of the aisle, but a few aisles over--in the toothpaste aisle, we found ourselves together again, and things took a turn for the worse. One of her boys reached out impulsively and tipped over a giant cardboard display of dental floss. "Oh no!" she yelled suddenly, and two bright red spots sprang to her cheeks. She bent down to pick up the floss and her back seemed to radiate anger and frustration and I've-had-it-up-to-here in very palpable ways. The boys sat, quiet and ashamed, in the cart. When she straightened up, she unleashed a string of angry scoldings directed at both boys, then she caught my eye. "It's okay," I wanted to tell the woman. "I understand." And I could have told her a similar tale, one involving T. and a holiday Jello display. Still, I wanted to reach out to her suddenly, because it was so clear to me that the floss was the last straw--really and truly--the one that takes you over the edge to That Place. We've all been there as parents, to That Place, where it all suddenly seems too much--the snapping point--and it's always a small thing that sends us there, like dental floss. I tried to smile at her, to convey in one look how I understood, but she turned away suddenly and pushed the cart forward as fast as she could go. Then...at the checkout line I waited for the cashier to process my payment and I overheard a woman talking loudly on her cell phone. "See, my daughter gets off the school bus at three o'clock," she said into the phone. Pause. Those same palpable waves of frustration I felt emanating from the tired, pushed-to-the-limit mom were rising up from this mom on the cell phone. She took a deep breath, after the pause. "Well, before I call someone else to pick her up, I just need to know one thing..." Another deep breath... "...I just need to know--is this meeting absolutely necessary?" She was clearly there, too, in That Place--and oh, I have so been there.