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An ode to benevolent strangers

Gratitude print, by Lisa Congdon on Etsy

Gratitude is really hot right now, and I’m not very good at it.

I mean, if you would like a primer on how to live with one foot in the past re-living every one of your mistakes and missteps and one foot in the future terrified of all the ways life could still go wrong, I am your lady. Seriously, I have a masters in that messed-up business. But being present, and even more than that, being grateful for being where I am – I don’t know how to do that. I struggle with it, and it doesn’t come naturally to me. I force it, I force myself to acknowledge it and it feels wooden and awkward. “Thank you” I say, stiffly, (to whom am I speaking? I have no idea). “Thank you for my health, my husband, my Olive. Thank you for family, and for living in Canada and for the chance to write.”

And then I sit there for a few minutes trying to feel this gratitude and trying to will it to flow through me like water. Trying not to let my inner voice cancel out those verbalized thank-you’s.

Trying to resist adding, like a sullen teenager, “For my health (except for this kidney condition that makes my heart race and my back tighten up like an angry fist, this condition I will live with for the rest of my life with no reprieve and no idea who or what I would have been without it), and for my husband, (except when we face off like hockey players hidden under eighteen layers of pads and face-masks, each unwilling to yield an inch), and my Olive. Thank you for family (except the ones that are too far away to love properly. The ones who I have to ration out like squares of expensive chocolate, denying myself for months and then scarfing down several dozen at once and ending up with a stomach-ache from the richness) and for living in Canada and for the chance to write (except when I sit here stilted and dry, waiting for words that do not come, and except when I send words out into this strange void and hear nothing back. Hello?)”

So, it is always a goal of mine to get better at gratitude. I hope desperately that if I do it enough and force it enough and say enough stiff, self-conscious prayers of thanks (is that what they are? prayers?)  that maybe it will feel more natural someday.

This post is one such attempt.

I remember before I was pregnant, hearing women complain about the invasion of space. Stranger’s hands on their bellies, nosy questions, inappropriate inquiries. Then suddenly I was one of them, I was pregnant, gloriously, gloriously pregnant and funnily enough I didn’t feel any of that. I saw people look at me, then down at my huge belly while a huge grin spread over their faces. I felt like my pregnant belly was some magic happiness wand, and faced with it waddling towards them people became magical better versions of themselves. Doors flew open and seats were offered, people would give me their place in line and ask if I needed anything.

Similarly, when I had Olive I was worried  – terrified, actually – of taking her in public initially. I was worried about her crying, and people glaring or judging or sighing loudly while muttering about that “damn baby”.

But, faced with little O, who is small but manages to command an incredible amount of attention with her magnificent happy bellowing, people have just been so lovely. Surprisingly so.

I have been so awed and, yes, so grateful for the many small kindnesses of benevolent strangers over the past eighteen months.

Here is my attempt to thank a few of them.


1. To the elderly woman beside me on the bus when Olive was two months old. We were on the way to see my mom in Victoria, and having held it together for most of the bus-ferry-bus-bus journey, Olive just let ‘er rip for the last fifteen minutes of the bus ride. She screamed and screamed, and I slunk deeper and deeper into my seat, trying to jiggle her and nurse her – trying to somehow silence her by sheer will and determination.

The woman made eye contact and instead of muttering about shutting up that damn baby, she (between Olive’s screams) told me about her son (now middle-aged) who as a baby could only be calmed by being pulled around in a sled. She commiserated and made me feel like the ear-shattering caterwauling was totally normal. She made me feel like a real mother, just dealing with her crying babies like a boss. I loved her and I felt so grateful for her sharing that common ground, that eight-pounds-of-screaming experience that all mothers have lived through, and inevitably grow to miss.


2. To the women who reached out to me when I first moved to this small town.  Before we moved here, I joined the local Facebook Moms Swap ‘n Shop group and asked a few questions about yoga classes, baby groups etc.

What I was really saying, of course, was Help! I am moving and I have a baby and I don’t know anyone. I am leaving my friends and my family, I am scared and I need some support, I need some ladyfriends to talk to about poop and breastfeeding without seeming like a crazy person.  

A woman sussed out that not-so-subtle subtext and messaged me, she said she had a daughter around the same age as Olive, and offered to take me for coffee when I moved. We met up and she introduced me to other moms, told me about the public health drop-in and the coffee shop with the kids play area. These women and I went on walks through the forest and alongside the ocean, we went for coffee and to the park and occasionally we ditched the babies and went out to the movies, revelling in the novelty of empty arms and adult conversation (about our babies…but still!).

This was such a small, simple thing to do, to reach out to a stranger and welcome her into your town, but it meant the world to me, and it also meant I got to leave the house occasionally wearing real clothes, and that was just so essential to my sanity.


3.  To everyone who has ever played peek-a-boo with Olive, anywhere, ever. Peek-a-boo is the universal language of babies. Everyone speaks it, and for those that chose to engage Olive in conversation over the past eighteen months, thank you.

In grocery store lineups, at the mall, at the swimming pool and on the what feels like millions of ferry rides we’ve taken. Thank you for amusing Olive, for probably staving off a tantrum or two, for alleviating her boredom, for allowing me a few blessed minutes of being “off”. You are the best. Plus, seeing a businessman play peek-a-boo is pretty much the best thing, ever.


4. To the woman who passed us in the mall  a few months ago. We were in the mall because it was raining again and we needed to get out of the house and run around. Olive was being challenging, frustrated with having been cooped up for so long, drunk with the heady feeling of FREEDOM!

Our outing was quickly devolving into a series of “No, Olive. Noooo, Don’t touch, sweetie. Just look, don’t touch. DON’T touch. No. Okay let’s go!” at which point I would pick her up as she’d cry and protest and go all limp-noodle in my arms. I’d carry this little bundle of rage twenty feet down the mall, where she’d walk ten steps and something else breakable/hazardous/gross would catch her eye and the cycle would repeat itself.

As all of this was unfolding and she was racing up and down a ramp for the eleventh time, and woman passed me and paused, “Is she yours?” she asked. I stiffened, “Yes” I replied. “Well,’ she said, looking at O screeching and careening towards us, “Aren’t you just the luckiest?”

This was said without the slightest trace of irony (trust me, I scavenged her face for it). I met her eyes and I said, again, “Yes.”. Those few small words just turned that day around. I am the luckiest.


5. To the young man with the llama (?) neck pillow on our flight from Edmonton-Vancouver. Olive was enthralled with the thing, and instead of being creeped out, or annoyed, or (worst of all) pretending you didn’t see the two-foot tall creature constantly escaping her harried mother to race back to your seat and point at your pillow while signing “More! more!”, you played with her for on and off for almost half the flight.

Thank you for letting her touch your (apparently irresistable) llama neck pillow with her (probably filthy) toddler hands. Thank you for letting her hug it and kiss it, thank you for making it talk in a funny voice. Thank you for taking the time to make a stranger’s daughter laugh.


6. To the man I parked beside in the Rexall parking lot on Tuesday afternoon. We were coming back from a weekend at my mom’s house in Victoria and I’d run out of diapers.I was getting Olive out of the car and she was babbling excitedly because she saw an airplane and some birds, and I was chatting to her like you do -“Oh! An airplane! That’s a big plane. Oh yes, and some birds, too! Look at the birds – are they eating?”  – and I noticed an elderly man sitting in the passenger seat of the car next to us. He smiled at us, the corners of his mouth reaching almost to his ears. He rolled down his window and asked how old she was, and then told me that he still remembered his son  – who was inside picking up a prescription for him – at that age. Toddling around, precocious and chubby. He said that it had gone so fast, too fast.

When we came out he was still there, waiting. As I buckled Olive into her seat he started barking like a dog at her. She loves dogs, she started giggling and he looked so happy, but also so wistful that I honestly almost started to cry. Guys, I will be an old lady in a parking lot looking wistfully at strangers children before I know it.

I got Olive to blow him some kisses and wave, and, as I stepped into the driver’s seat he said to me before he rolled up the window, “You sure are a nice young mother.”


There are more. Oh god, there are so many more I’ll never remember them all. Everyone who ever smiled at me chasing after her and said, “She’s sure keeping you busy!” instead of judging me, or judging her. Everyone who picked up a fork thrown to the floor in a restaurant, and handed it to her. Everyone who remarked about how cute she was, or how sweet – even when she was being anything but.  

Thank you, strangers. Thank you for tolerating my loud, happy, crazy, sometimes crying child. Thank you for not only tolerating her, but seeming to actually delight in her. You make my days easier and my heart full – in the cheesiest way possible – with the basic decency of humanity – we are just a bunch of humans playing peek-a-boo and smiling, thinking of our own children, now grown.

Benevolent strangers, you have the eternal, everlasting gratitude of this nice young mother.