It’s a beautiful crisp fall Saturday. I am doing what I habitually do on fall weekends: waiting for my turn at the deli counter. In the next two days, my family and I will have most meals on the fly as we run to five soccer games. It’s time to stock up on supplies, and I’m here to do just that.
The customer ahead of me, a woman about fifteen years older than me, is having a hard time reciting her order. She is sobbing, loudly. I think to myself, “I wonder if she’s just gotten some terrible news?” I struggle to decide what to do. Do I say something comforting, or pretend that I don’t notice?
Finally, I feel compelled to say “Are you ok?” Still sobbing, she points to the store’s windows which overlook the high school football field. Her voice hitching from her sobs, she says, “This is the first time in ten years that one of my sons is not on that field.”
I’m still confused, and not a little alarmed. Is her son sick, or even worse, dead? Gingerly, I ask “Why?” “My third son went off to college this year. I will never again be on the bleachers with the other parents cheering on our team.”
A “that’s what you’re crying about?” thought comes to my mind. She notices my minimizing expression, pauses a moment, and then says, “Do you have children playing sports?”
“Yes,” I respond. “I have three that play soccer and lacrosse.” Sniffles subsiding, the tables turn and I can see that now she is the one struggling with how to respond to me.
Quietly, but emphatically she says, “Make sure that you cherish every minute, the games, the practices, the carpools and the parents that you spend more time with than your own siblings; because, before you know it, it’s gone.” Eyes still glued to the window, she takes her order from the counter and walks away, sobbing once again.
That exchange happened over 15 years ago. It’s funny how a small encounter can stay with you. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. But, given how upset she was, I took it to heart, and it became my mantra.
On those crazy pre-GPS days when we had overlapping games in several different locations and couldn’t find out-of-the-way soccer fields, I would repeat to myself, “deli counter lady, deli counter lady”. While watching games in torrential downpours and snow storms, I listened to the voice in my head chant “deli counter lady, deli counter lady.” Most of all, during those come-from-behind wins or the team bonding parties at our home, I would look around and savor the smells, sights and sounds and say a silent, “thank you, deli counter lady.”
Interestingly, I didn’t know much about my deli counter lady, other than she was a mother of active kids like me. But my simple, serendipitous interaction with her gave me a great gift. From that day on, I was going to do everything possible to ensure that launching my kids into college would not be as dramatic a loss for me. I would be present in the moment while simultaneously thinking about the future. On those days when the kids were sick and I had to go to work, or when clients would call in crisis and interrupt my schedule, on those days when I wondered if I could do it all, I would repeat “deli counter lady, deli counter lady.”
Now, not surprisingly, I coach women who are about to become or are empty nesters. If I were to meet my deli counter lady again today, in similar circumstances, I would know what to do. I would connect her to a rich, supportive community of inspirational women who are excited about all the possibilities ahead of them.
But for now, all I can say is “Thank you, deli counter lady.”