The broad-shouldered, stocky shopper with the expression of a man on a mission stepped up to the counter and carefully deposited his haul: two stacks, six boxes high each, of soft-soled bedroom slippers in various cheerful prints. An even dozen. Noticing his black jacket, embroidered with his restaurant logo and buttoned up the side in the style worn by chefs, I smiled at him from my post behind the counter and couldn’t resist a comment on the scope of his purchase. “Look at you! That’s quite a stack.”
He smiled back, a bit shyly, and explained, “These are for my ladies. They’re on their feet all day long.”
I felt a tiny catch in my throat as I reached for the top box to open his transaction, getting down to business with, “Wow, I bet they’re going to love you for this.” He shrugged away the praise. “They work really, really hard.”
In the classic holiday flick Love Actually, a favorite in annual year-end rotation for nearly every romantic soul I know, Hugh Grant plays a bachelor British Prime Minister who claims total failure in his romantic life. Yet the movie opens with scenes of dozens of reunions of hugging, crying people, with his voice offering this observation:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there…”
I thought about this observation more than once recently, having ignored the critics and watched the film enough times to remember bits like that, however schlocky. It came to mind thanks to my slipper-buying chef and others, as I spent several days running a cash register and assisting customers at a local big-box retailer in the final, frenetic days and hours of the annual holiday buying extravaganza. When I mentioned these plans to friends and family as the days approached, a few bubbled a cheerful, ‘Oh, fun!” But more than one offered a face crossed with the shadow of anxiety. “Oh, lord,” one admitted later, “I thought you were going to be fighting it out with the frustrated dregs of humanity, and I hated it for you.” While I refused admit it out loud in advance, I feared the same.
Oh, what fun it is, as the song says, to learn that the experience proved very much the opposite. While we prattle on endlessly about holiday stress, over-spending, about commercialism and misdirected intentions, as a foot soldier at the battlefront of the gift-giving rituals, I didn’t see that. Where I feared snappy, stressed shoppers, barking unreasonable demands, I saw patience with long lines, polite acceptance of the late-season realities of inventory and options, and smiles returned when offered. Where I dreaded watching the nauseous excess of people spending irrationally with plastic, with no thought of cost or the implications thereof, I saw thoughtful attention to pricing and promotions, with many a buyer—far more frequently than expected– deliberately dealing out bills from carefully counted stashes of cash. When I flushed with embarrassment over a transaction error and stammered an apology, the kind victim received it with a knowing nod and added, “There’s a lot more to what you are doing here than most people realize, but I get it. Hang in there.”
What was I doing there, anyway? It just seemed like a good way to wave a very grateful good-riddance to an unusually tough year. My traditional career role lost to restructuring months before, unemployment running out with no new job in sight, I was determined to get out of the house and turn my restless hands to something productive, anything, really—and earn a few bucks in the process, for the Christmas gifts on my own shopping list. While struggling with being jobless, I had watched in previous months as members of my beloved family struggled with health and disruption of all kinds, and there seemed little I could do. Nothing underscores pain or uncertainty like yawning, unoccupied hours, and I would do almost anything to stay busy during the season when the requisite cheer was proving hard to conjure up. So off I went, shortly after Thanksgiving, to enlist in the ranks of retail’s “seasonal associates.” And I suppose it’s fair to admit one more enticement: Some forty years after I first worked in retail as an industrious teen, there was a challenge in seeing if I could still do it.
While the answer to that proved to be yes—though not without a few embarrassing hiccups that made great comedy–I earned something much different than anticipated in my holiday experiment. In return for sore feet, broken fingernails, bleeding cuticles, security-sensor needles stuck to my shoe sole, finger knuckles slammed in register drawers, and more of that sort of amusement, I had the privilege of watching, over and over again, one of the most powerful human emotions: generosity, and the genuine desire to give to others, not as a perfunctory requirement, but as an expression of love.
Chef Slippers was a favorite, no question, but there were so many others. In the handbag department one morning I assisted an earnest young husband and father with an important clarifying question. “We have a young toddler at home,” he began. “And we’re just starting to get out at night again. My wife is tired of carrying that big baby bag, and when she was dressing to go out last night she said, ‘I really just need a clutch.’ “ Holding up one option he had industriously identified among dozens that would easily confuse anyone not schooled in, shall we call it, the Art and Science of Purses, he pleaded, “Is this a clutch?” Helping him nail his quarry was the highlight of my day. If I have ever studied anything long enough to qualify for Ph.D.-level achievement, it might just be for a doctorate in handbags and accessories. (Such a pity, that there isn’t one.)
And then there was the grieving grandfather. This story came from my young co-worker, and I was not privileged to see it myself, but we cried together when she shared it. A woman approached the service desk with a stack of items for a young woman accompanying her, apparently a granddaughter or niece. The man in line behind them overheard them talking to each other and stepped forward to slide his own credit card for their purchase. His own granddaughter had recently died, he explained, seeking the older woman’s permission to complete the transaction, and he missed buying her something at Christmas.
So next year, if I am gloomy (like Hugh Grant) about the state of the world, I may have to re-enlist, if my feet are tough enough to take it. To get to watch, close up, when the heart rises to the surface, with the objects of its affection in mind, and the spirit of giving expresses itself so freely. Thanks for reminding me, Chef Slippers and all the rest of you, about how deeply generosity and its closest cousin, kindness, are rooted in the human soul, often in the most impossible situations. What could be a better gift than that?
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering “it will be happier.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson