This is a true story and very painful to write. I’m changing the names of the individuals to maintain some of their privacy. There’s no right or wrong answer to the dilemma the story poses and, indeed, no answer necessary to the rhetorical questions it asks.
We live in a really lovely complex in a high-end residential neighborhood. The landscaping is gorgeous and this week there has been a red-shirted crew of elves installing thousands and thousands of Christmas lights, simply to delight residents and visitors. It will look like fairyland – it always does. And I suspect this year will be even better because more trees than usual have wires wrapping around their trunks and along their branches. Again, this is simply to give us joy.
A resident, who I have not met, has a daughter in her 20s. Let’s call her Michelle. Michelle has a 2-year-old daughter. Let’s call her Rosie. I’d seen Michelle occasionally pushing Rosie in a stroller up the driveway from the main road. Without being unkind (which always means I’m being unkind), her appearance and attire were different from mine and from that of other residents. Yes, she looks different. And she also seemed unfriendly, not greeting anyone en route – again, not typical of other residents, who usually at least nod. Over the last few weeks, there have been occasions where I’ve heard and seen Michelle yelling at Rosie outside and it bothered me enough to mention it to other neighbors. Then we heard a story about a neighbor having a shouting match with Michelle about keeping Rosie from running around outside with the abundant traffic. We raised our eyebrows. And we had all seen Michelle making her way on foot from the grocery store, which is at least a mile away, with grocery bags hanging off the stroller handles. Yes, we raised our eyebrows higher. And one day, it was pouring with rain and she didn’t even have an umbrella and little Rosie was getting soaked. Our eyebrows couldn’t go any higher.
But you just never know what’s going on in a person’s life. A few weeks ago, I rounded a corner with Savannah and came face-to-face with Michelle and Rosie. I stopped and said hello and we exchanged names. And I started seeing her regularly and she started smiling when she saw me. One day, she was sitting outside without Rosie, who she said was inside watching a movie. We started chatting and she told me her story. She is homeless. When she can’t get a bed at the women’s shelter, she stays with her father. There are obviously a lot of issues here and her relationship with her father cannot be easy on either side. I’m not taking sides either. Apart from having a 2-year-old, it’s easy to see that medical and emotional challenges would make it difficult for Michelle to get a job and earn enough to pay rent herself. She thanked me for listening and I realized that I’m probably one of the few neighbors who has talked to her. Her homelessness helps explain her appearance and I felt ashamed for questioning her clothing choices. It also explains why Rosie is never clipped into the stroller – a discarded stroller probably doesn’t have straps. She tells me about the system and how hard it is to be homeless. She doesn’t blame anyone but seems resigned to her fate. I hurt for her – it seems so hopeless. She tells me she sometimes begs on the street. I think I even told her to be careful doing that – but what options does she have?
Earlier this week, I went for my regular walk with a friend. On the way home, crossing the bridge over the Chattahoochee River (it still gives me pleasure to say that word and to know that I live on its banks), I saw Michelle in the distance pushing the stroller. I waved and held out my arms. Rosie jumped out and ran towards me hugging my legs like I was part of her family. My heart melted as I picked her up. So now I’m feeling warm and fuzzy because I acknowledge Michelle when I see her and don’t turn up my nose; and Rosie knows me. All is well with the world. Until this morning when I decided to pop out to buy some flowers for a neighbor who has been ill and is coming home today. As I turned out of our campus, I saw Michelle and Rosie waiting for the lights to change on the main road. I realize now she was crossing to wait for the bus. She evidently decided not to walk to the grocery story today because the temperature had dropped significantly and with the wind chill from the edge of a huge storm, it is actually almost freezing. I kept driving. Well, I can’t have a child in a car without a car seat; I don’t know if they are even going the same way I’m going; it’s too dangerous to stop right here and do a u-turn; I’m only getting one bunch of flowers and don’t have time to wait for someone to do grocery shopping – you get it!
Less than 10 minutes later, I’m heading out to my Jeep clutching the flowers … and there they are. The bus must have come immediately. At least Rosie is covered by a blanket. Michelle comes up to me and says, “My dad is out of town and didn’t leave us any money for food.” My heart sank. I thought quick and made a decision – the bottom line is I’m not getting involved or starting. I muttered that I was just grabbing some flowers and had to run and she said that was OK. I started up my Jeep and started driving toward the exit. As I did so, I saw Michelle approach a man and he quickly turned away. She then walked over to the store entrance and stood there in her flip-flops and shorts and spoke to another shopper who ignored her. I pulled into a parking spot. I don’t carry a lot of cash at any time, but I pulled $5 out of my wallet, got out and walked back to the store entrance. I handed her the money. She said, “Thank you, sweetie. God bless you.”
I don’t feel warm and fuzzy any more. Life is very unfair even when choices bring consequences. But I know I will enjoy the Christmas lights and I’m sure Rosie will be as enchanted as I am.