Saturday, September 12, 2020

Who's behind the mask?


Saturdays are always busy days for us. Usually my husband works in the yard and I work inside the house, but today we decided to venture out on an errand. 

It was time to buy our monthly groceries. Since money is tight with only one income, we always try to be thrifty. We'd compared prices at all of the local grocery chains and big box stores finding Walmart to be the least expensive, so that's where we decided to shop even though I don't really trust buying meat there, I agreed to go. 

As we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed there were no spaces close to the front of the store. The crowded lot said it all. Many were taking advantage of this beautiful day. 

We walked from the far end of the lot toward the store, masks in hand. When we approached, we noticed blockades set up to herd people in the "right" direction. An employee sat on a little stool making sure each person who entered the store had on the proper facial attire. Those without masks were turned away. 

The sliding doors opened as we stepped on the mat outside the entrance. I kept on walking and my husband grabbed a grocery cart following quickly behind me. 

First stop was the produce department, my favorite area. Hubby always tells me I spend too much time there but I don't care. I love fresh vegetables and don't mind cooking them. 

I perused the aisles picking up plump, juicy tomatoes, sweet Vidalia onions, luscious purple eggplants, and a heap of deep green Kale. Reaching for some artisan salad on a shelf above my head, I made the clear containers tumble down. A nearby employee scrambled to get them but I'd beat him to it. Our eyes locked and I wondered who was behind the mask. 

His dark brown eyes looked kind. I apologized for upsetting his display and he didn't say a word. I watched as he restacked the packages. He seemed frustrated and ready to move on. I wondered if he'd had a hard day. 

I quickly finished in the produce department and headed toward the aisle with canned goods. Another store employee was busy scanning and stacking items. I approached and asked where I might find sun dried tomatoes. She mumbled something and started down the aisle. She wasn't upset, but in a hurry to oblige. Within a few minutes, she turned to face me packages in hand. "Here you go," she said, her bright blue eyes sparkling. Thanking her I continued on. 

Next came the dairy department. I needed some cottage cheese and some hummus. As I rounded the corner, I almost bumped into an employee pushing a large cart with stackable blue crates. I manuevered around her and grabbed my containers of cottage cheese placing them in my buggy. She was still working next to me so I turned to speak to her. 

"Are you one of the grocery pickers, the personal shoppers for online orders," I asked. She replied in the affirmative. As we talked I noticed her large, round eyes, a beautiful shade of amber. "I'd like to thank you for all your hard work," I said, explaining that I usually use the online ordering service but had decided to come into the store for items myself today. She nodded her head and I told said, "I hope you know how vitally important your job is to those of us dealing with medical issues. I don't know what I would have done without people like you who took the time to select my groceries when I was diagnosed with cancer." 

At that moment, she stopped what she was doing and stood looking into my eyes. I hoped she could tell I was smiling even though a tear was forming in the corner of my right eye. We stood like that for several minutes, just looking at each other, and then I patted her arm and said, "Really, thank you so much. Whoever you're picking for today may never thank you, but I want you to know I value you." 

The gleam in her eye let me know she was smiling beneath her mask and she'd accepted the compliment with pride. 

I knew she needed to hear a good word and it felt amazing to offer that tiny gesture of kindness to her. 

As I pushed my cart toward the deli, I glanced around the wide space in front of me. There were people from all walks of life and all of them hidden behind masks. As I looked at them, I felt sad. So many failed to make eye contact with those around them, instead choosing to ignore the fact that they were in the presence of others. 

I wanted things to be like they used to be. Last year, when I'd gone grocery shopping, I'd often strike up conversations with those I met in the aisles of the store. I could see entire facial expressions before speaking and I'd know, by body language, whether or not it was okay to approach. 

We were made for community. A little paper or cloth mask shouldn't have the power to destroy that fact but it's already done so much damage. 

Yes, there will be those who believe masks are for the best but there will also be those who believe them to be detrimental to both health and emotional well being. 

As we see more and more public venues requiring masks, will anyone pay attention to the one behind the mask? Will we take time to actually "see" each other, even if the only evidence of humanity are the eyes? 

I hope I'm not the only one wondering who's behind the mask. Every individual matters, and everyone could use an extra measure of kindness. 

The Bible says, "Be ye kind, one to another." Though no one may see your smile behind the mask, the eyes can say it all. Look at those around you. Lock eyes. See them. And in so doing, pray they'll see you, too. 

We're in this thing together. We might as well make our encounters count.

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