IT WAS MANY YEARS AGO NOW that I found myself standing in a dingy corner of a laundromat, toe-to-toe with a raging woman, steeling myself for a fistfight. Her daughter, I’d guess around six years old, was sitting under the folding table, quietly picking at the peeling squares of linoleum. I couldn’t take it anymore. Better a fight than standby and listen to another word out of the mother’s mouth. For half an hour, I had shared space with the two of them as we waited for our clothes to be washed and dried in the industrial-sized machines. During that time, I watched and listened as this woman berated her daughter. Every word, every single word she directed to that little girl, was dripping in disgust and rage.
Mummy, can I…”
“I told you! NO! Get out of my face! Go sit down!”
The little girl went to the plastic chair and quietly played with two Polly Pocket dolls she held in her hands. She made one of them stand on the ledge of a washing machine.
“What the hell are you doing? I told you not to touch anything!” The mother grabbed the chair the little girl was sitting in and violently pulled it forward so there would be no more touching of the washing machine.
“STAY THERE! Don’t touch a f**king thing!”
My whole body jumped. The little girl barely flinched.
This went on and on. Relentlessly, despite her best efforts, the little girl’s mother found all manner of things to yell at her for. She was humming, and her mum told her to shut up. She got off the chair, and her mum told her to go to the other corner of the laundromat so she could have some “peace and quiet”. When the little girl said she needed to use the bathroom, her mum said, “Well, then, go find one.”
“Mummy, can I put in the money?”
“Mummy, can I press the button?”
“NO! I told you to stop, so STOP! Go sit down or so help me!”
Throughout it all, I could feel my blood going from a low simmer to a rolling boil. I had tried all the passive-aggressive stuff – the dirty looks to the mother, the quiet shaking of my head. I probably threw in a few “tsks.” I made eye contact with the little girl and smiled. She smiled back. I remember thinking how desperate she was. No matter how many times her mother rejected her, insulted her, chastised her, she would still take her chances with the possibility of another outcome.
I wanted that little girl to stop, to hide, to protect herself. But she wouldn’t. Better something than nothing, I guess. Worth a shot.
There was a time when I was innocent to the wickedness of people. I know the day that changed. I was nine years old, and I was playing hide and seek with some kids in our neighbourhood. It was dusk in our townhouse complex by the river. We had moved there when our house in the country burned down. Kids were different in the city than they were in the country. When we played marbles, I had to be on guard for the cheats. When we played hide and seek, the seeker had to count out loud, really loud, so we knew they wouldn’t short us on time. There was an air of suspicion I had to wisen up to pretty quickly.
But on that evening, an otherwise soft, warm summer evening, a girl I met only once through another friend, encircled me with her older sisters and their friends. The kids I was playing with left, obviously understanding what was happening more than I. This group of girls started calling me names. I wasn’t used to hearing those types of words. My alarm bells went off a little too late. Not that I could have done anything if I realised what was about to happen earlier. After a few minutes of pushing and slinging vitriol, the girl I had met one time before, slapped me across the face. Everyone laughed. I stood frozen.
All I remember after that was running into my house and throwing myself onto my bed. It was shame more than it was anything else. The other kids, my pals from the neighbourhood, had watched from safe distances. They saw me get slapped. They saw my weakness. They saw my pathetic prostrate yellow-bellied shame.
I spent the next couple of years in that housing complex hyper-aware of the kids around me. I stopped going to the marble holes because I was worried this girl gang would find me. I spent most of my time trudging along “down by the river” and climbing trees where I could see the whole world from my vantage point. I paid my little sister to go to the dairy for me to buy me my hits of Mr Freezies and straws full of coloured sugar. She laughed at my fear of “the teenagers”.
But something happened along the way. My fear transmuted to a quiet rumble of fury in my guts. As I got older, I grew taller. I wasn’t a skinny little bean sprout anymore. I was 5’9”. I got picked up for basketball in junior high and learned the sheer joy of aggressive sport. I specifically say “aggressive sport” because that part was the most fun for me. The basketball was fine, but it was the shoving and the pushing and the elbowing of our opponents that delighted me the most. I was strong! When we played against the other Catholic schools, we looked forward to the all-girls schools the most. “Rich bitches”, we used to say. Those games were always laden with penalties and after-game trash-talking.
I grew into the typical headbanger in junior high. We smoked at the outdoor ice rinks. We got drunk whenever. My friends all smoked drugs whenever they could get their hands on them, which wasn’t all that often. Me? Never did like them. All of us, for some reason or another, were angry. Fist fights were a regular occurrence. There was always some slight to pay for, some offence to rectify. People threw around cutting insults with ease, and just because someone was your friend today didn’t mean you could count on that tomorrow.
Girls that would bother my little sister would find themselves face-to-face with me. I remember pushing a girl off the drama stage once – a little warning to her after she teased my sister on the school bus. With another girl, it was a fight in the school hallway. And as I grew up, my confidence in my ability to physically back myself up, came with it. Most people are cowards, just like I had been that night when the girl gang surrounded me. There’s a psychology to that. You learn, pretty quickly, who is all talk and who puts their money where their mouth is. It’s the animal instinct, the street smarts. It’s meeting the demand that you drill into that instinct instead of ignoring it. Or else.
Of course, life softens rough edges, or at least it should. Or, at least, mine did. It might seem odd to say that the military softened me, but it did in some ways. It taught me an authentic confidence in self and what I could offer as part of a cohesive team. It gave me opportunities to challenge myself in ways I could never find in the civilian world. I came to know the force of my will. I didn’t need to use the debasement of another to know the value of myself. I could use my determination to achieve something instead of always rallying against.
But I’d be lying if I said the instinct doesn’t remain. That streak in me, call it what you will, holds fast. I am smarter now, older, and have better tools at my disposal. I left the scrappy Tara in the 80s, but bits of her are still bits of me. How could it be any other way? And so, when I found myself in that laundromat with a little girl, so vulnerable in the hands of her mother, it was that Tara, the one that instantly, instinctually, knew what this woman was all about, that understood that confronting her was going to end in a fight. She was looking for it, needed it, I knew. Her brazenness, unabashed in her flagrant display of meanness, challenged every person in that room. “What are you going to do about it?” she seemed to ask with her every exhalation.
And there I was, washing loads of damp, sandy sleeping bags from our camping trip, plopped right there in her line of fire. It was the kid or me. The drumbeat (or was that my heart?) pounding through my whole body. My adrenaline whooshing through my eardrums with each pound of my heart, growing so loud I could hardly take another second of her, not another hateful word out of her mouth. I couldn’t stand to witness anything more.
This is the part where I confront the woman, every muscle in my body a spring of tension, waiting to pounce. This is where I start pointing and raising my voice, telling her how and why she is a miserable excuse for a mother. “That beautiful baby!” That’s what I’d say. “Your beautiful baby, and you are destroying her! You monster!” I would yell my words and rub them into her skin, syllable by syllable.
But that’s not what happened. What happened is, admittedly, probably a given for some of you. It would just be how you operate, where your life had brought you, but it wasn’t what I knew. In fact, I knew nothing of how I was about to talk to this woman because it didn’t come from me at all. I just simply paused. Instead of doing what I knew, I opted for another tactic. I said a quiet, simple prayer. “God, please show me what to do, and I will do it.”
And that’s what happened. I was shown what to do.
There I was, facing my grade school bully all over again. This 5’11” woman wound like a taut cobra, belittling her own daughter. What would she do to me? These are the types of people we must meet head-on with aggression – it’s the only language that they know. And you’re asking me to “be love”. I didn’t even know what that meant. How could I possibly do that?
But I had said in my prayer that if God would show me, I would listen. That was the deal.
I walked up to the woman, my heart pounding, and I took her hands in mine. “Are you okay?” I asked. I didn’t ask with sarcasm. I didn’t ask with hostility. I asked with a love that moved through me but didn’t come from me.
Was I really holding this maniac’s hands?
She stared at me, the two of us face to face. Her hands limp in mine. We both just stared into each other’s eyes. I don’t know how long we were there for, but whatever it was that moved through me, reached her. Infiltrated her defences. Flowed out through my fingertips into hers. The two of us, standing there, somehow understanding something. Both of us the same. Both of us being loved.
“I just can’t do this anymore”, she sobbed. I pulled her into me, and she bawled on my shoulder. Her whole body collapsed on my shoulders, and I held her, my hands against her back and neck.
I know. I know.
“I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
You have to do it. Look at that beautiful little girl and how much she adores you.
I don’t remember the details after that. We sat down together, knee to knee. I held her hand. She cried. She told me about her life, about the lousy man that she had just left. She told me about her world. I shared some of my own. We talked about kids. We talked about parenting. She told me about her parents, their rage and violence. She told me how she could see that ugliness in herself. She spilled out her confessions, and I tried to be worthy of her vulnerability while still holding her to task.
What else was there for me to do? That’s the part I have no control over. There are forces much bigger than I to take care of the rest of the story. I was just a chapter, a couple paragraphs maybe, in a much bigger story. I sat with that woman for an hour or so. The whole time, I struggled with what I was doing. I wanted to be mad. I was still mad. I wanted to shake her at times.
At one point, I asked if I could buy her daughter an ice cream from the little snack bar in the laundromat. She agreed. I told the little girl that she could pick out any ice cream she liked. She chose an ice cream sandwich, “Because then you get a cookie and an ice cream”, she said. “You’re so smart; I never thought of it like that!” I told her. She beamed. That was all I could give her.
I gave her an ice cream, and she introduced me to her Polly Pockets. We talked about their outfits. I wanted to bring that little girl home with me. “I’ll take her. You can come visit”. That’s what I wanted to say. I will love her and be gentle with her and make up for your anger, loving spoonful by loving spoonful. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I still want. I still think of that little girl. She would be a young woman now. Where is she, and who has she become?
Eventually, her clothes were washed and dried. She was speaking to her daughter with more care. She even let her daughter crawl up on her lap at one point. I’m not so naive that I believe that this one little interaction changed everything. In all likelihood, it changed little. Maybe just a reprieve. Maybe just a few moments with someone that would listen, a complete stranger that saw something in her that she maybe didn’t see herself. Maybe nobody else ever did, either. I told her why I went up to her, about what I was thinking, that I thought we’d end up in a fight, and she said, “Yeah! I can’t believe I didn’t smack you for that! But something weird happened there …”
“I know. To me, too,” I said.
We hugged goodbye. I said a little prayer as I walked out of that laundromat. “Dear God, please bless that mother; fill her heart with kindness and mercy. And please cover that little girl with your love.”
I threw our cleaned sleeping bags in the trunk of our car and got in the passenger seat.
“How did it go?” my husband asked.
“I don’t understand what just happened”, I said.
Today, I understand what happened. I know it because I know what followed. And because I know what followed, I understand the wholeness of the gift. That moment was an awakening for me. It was a wrenching, ugly moment transformed through love in a way that I was not capable of doing alone. I left that laundromat forever changed. I came to understand that my power is not in my ability to control a situation, but in my surrender to be used in ways that are beyond my limited capacity.
I appreciate the part of me that needs to do what she needed to do to survive during a certain time of her life. That toughness still serves me well in many ways. My daughters call me “mama bear” for a reason. I’ve heard them say to others, “Oh, hell, no, you don’t know my mum!” when it comes to addressing some injustice or another. I cannot suffer a bully, no matter the form. I just cannot do it. I would rather be in the ring than meekly cheering on a champion.
But I also understand that our power lies elsewhere. There is a time for speaking up, and there are times that require our softness. We all have our tendencies – the places we go that have the deep ruts of our way of being. Some of us retreat to silence during confrontations, hoping to diffuse with avoidance and distraction. Others might employ those passive-aggressive type antics. Others complain loudly behind the other person’s back, breaking them down to lift themselves up.
Whatever it is we tend towards, maybe a little prayer, a request for the wisdom to see what is being asked of us with a promise to carry through. God, or the universe, or the energetic field, or whatever you call the spirit that moves through and enlivens all of us, will show you. My guess is it’s going to be uncomfortable. It always is for me. It’s so much easier to be righteous in our rightness than challenged in our perspective. But the time we have moved into requires our courage and our voices. Pray or meditate or inform yourself, yes – but none of that matters without action. And if action is comfortable, there’s probably not a lot of growing going on there.
I still think of that mother and that little girl. They are indelibly written into the fabric of my life. I am grateful to her – the biggest, baddest gal around with traits I found so deeply abhorrent. It had to be her, and it had to be that little round-eyed girl sitting in the plastic chair, bruised and battered, playing quietly with her plastic dolls. My two angels in the laundromat.
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