It’s not unusual for me to cry in the grocery store checkout line. By the time I get to that point in the shopping trip I am trying to push a cart weighted down with food for a family of six with one hand, while wrestling a kicking toddler with the other. I’m throwing commands over my shoulder hoping my other three shopping companions will obey and follow me without standing in anyone else’s way or pull anything else off the shelves. Always frazzled. Sometimes embarrassed. The tears have been known to appear as I unload items from my cart to the belt and try to keep all hands off the packets of gum perfectly located at my children’s line of vision.
It’s at this point in my routine that I would meet up with Frank. The checker at Sprouts, the market two blocks from my house. If Frank was on duty I chose his line for two reasons: he was fast, getting us out of there as quickly as possible, and he was a beam of sunshine. He usually greeted me with a “Hi Mom” and then a compliment of one of my children. Unlike the shoppers whose sideways glares were still sizzling on my back, Frank did his best to catch my kids doing something right. “They’re so good” he’d say. Or if he couldn’t rightly pay that particular compliment in that moment, “They’re so beautiful.” In an errand that almost always involved frustration and feelings of failure as a mom, Frank would include an affirmation for me. “You’re doing a great job Mom.” Usually the only direct praise I’d hear that day. Because really who else pulls out a “Good job Mom”? And I welcomed Frank’s every time.
So a few days ago as I stood in the checkout line at Sprouts, ready to get home and get everyone in bed after a long week of house guests and camping, my oldest daughter pointed to a laminated placard taped to the back of the register, positioned for all shoppers to see. It was a picture of Frank and my tears started as I read the first few words, “It’s with heavy hearts…” and my mind stopped absorbing what I kept trying to read over and over: an explanation that Frank had died the week earlier and the details of the services.
The eye faucet was turned on full strength and I couldn’t stop it. Tears ran down my cheeks as the 20-something checker explained Frank had a heart attack, didn’t show up to work. How a group from the store had gone to the funeral that morning. How there had been a black cloud over the staff the first few days after they’d found out. No surprise. Frank was the life of the party. But I couldn’t stop crying. Pushing my cart, my kids speechless at why their mom was behaving this way in public, we walked outside and transferred grocery bags to the stroller we would push two blocks home.
Why was I so sad? I knew nothing of Frank’s life outside of the store. I knew we shared a love of all things Italian. I had the sense he came from a big family, but now lived in a quiet home. Most of our interactions were two minutes in length and included what I was making for dinner.
We’d shared a few significant moments. Like when he had to cut the baby out of the seat in the cart because neither he nor I could get the buckle to work. “Well she can’t stay in there forever.” And with a dramatic flare that this mom appreciated he called out for scissors and cut her free. And then there was the time he helped me with my bags during a blizzard. I can’t remember if it was because the cart wouldn’t push through the inches that had dumped while I was in the store, or if it was one of the times I was pregnant in the last few years and I needed to be especially cautious in the slippery parking lot, but Frank carried my bags for me. I saw what looked like the shape of a minivan in the general area where I’d parked and slid the car’s side door open. The teenager inside and I were both surprised. “You don’t know which car is yours?” Frank was not willing to let the obvious go unnoticed.
None of those shared moments were life changing, so why could I not stop crying? Because Frank handled my chaos well. At the end of a stressful 20 minutes at the store he always welcomed my crew of criers, product grabbers and shelf messer-uppers. He looked for the best in my kids and in me. And I realized I would miss it because that quality, that loving people in their imperfect, chaotic, messiness, is so rare. I would miss him because of how he cared for me in just a few words and few kind glances in our every encounter.
Salute Frank! It’s my turn to say “Good job.” You are already missed.