My mother-in-law loves Costco. For the record, I don’t want to love the two-pack cereal boxes or the vats of edamame hummus. I don’t want to indulge in so many free food samples that I skip lunch. I don’t want to pay a membership fee to a store at which I have to BUY STUFF.
But I am card-holding member and yes, I do eat the samples (sometimes I go back for seconds) and yes, that hummus is to die for, and though I can’t possibly eat that bag of eight avocados before at least two over ripen, my mother-in-law watches as I carefully lay them in my cart.
“Avocados are so healthy,” she says.
By the time we exit Costco, I have enough tortellini to feed my daughter’s entire fifth-grade class. My mother-in-law helps me load the car. Greek olives eye me through their large-sized glass jar. I hide them under a blanket.
The long lines of cars at the fuel station force me to make a useless lap around the Costco parking lot before we leave. That’s when we see the children. At first I think, car wash. Several kids are holding signs, but there are no hoses or sponges or soapy water buckets.
“Oh!” My mother-in-law shifts in her seat, swivels, leans against the window. “Do you see that?” She is desperate to get closer.
Their signs read:
Our Mother Went To Heaven To Be With Jesus. Money Needed for Funeral.
My foot instinctively pushes down on the gas pedal, lurching us forward. We nearly mow down an older man returning a cart.
The possibility that these kids have a dead mother awaiting a proper funeral that can only be funded by the generosity of Costco shoppers is horrific, but equally horrific is the possibility that these kids asking for money DON’T have a dead mother awaiting a Costco-patron-funded funeral.
My mother-in-law is worried for the children. She presses her face closer to the window. “Should we go over there?” She wants to talk to them, comfort them. “We should give them money, don’t you think?”
I shake my head. ”No.” I steer us away.
My mother-in-law is quiet a moment then begins telling me a story of the last time she visited her second son. “On a corner near Greg’s house,” she begins “there was this guy and his dog. The guy had a sign that said, “Need to feed my dog. Anything helps.” She looks out the window. We are far away now from Costco, but she turns back as if toward the children.
“I gave the man twenty dollars.” She says this as a confession, as if she is telling me an embarrassing account of walking out of the bathroom with her skirt tucked into her nylons. “Greg was so mad at me. He said, ‘Mom, the guy’s there everyday with the same sign.’”
“You just never know.” We both worry about the kids with the dead mother.
My mother-in-law brings up the signs during dinner. “I wonder if that was real,” she says, swallowing a bite of pasty tortellini. She takes a drink of water. “I hope not.”
At a baby shower the next day, I tell the story of the children at Costco. The message on the signs becomes the story’s crescendo, but when I repeat the “My Mother Went To Heaven,” part, I flash to an image of my own daughter writing those words on a sign, and I have to rush to the money for funeral part. “There’s no way that was real,” I say. “Right?”
“Well, if I had just lost my parent,” says one woman, “I wouldn’t be holding a sign at Costco.”
Another suggests, “What if their parents are drug addicts and forced them to hold the signs to get money? I bet if you would have gone over and asked one of them a few pointed questions, like ‘Where exactly did she die’ and ‘What was she wearing’ their story would fall apart. You can’t prep kids for that.”
I say, “If these kids really lost their mother and couldn’t afford a funeral, surely there’s a church group or non-profit or a government program that would step in.” I shake my head. It can’t have been legit.
I get home and try to put the children with the dead mother out of my mind. Instead, I Google the sign message in several combinations with the words “scam” and “parking lot” and “Costco.” I find nothing.
I begin to wonder if there really are children in my community who have lost their mother and are without the means to bury her. Would that be better or worse than children in my community whose mother is alive, but who hold signs claiming she is dead so that they can scam money from people?
I’m not sure whether to feel smug for averting a scam or terrible for my lack of compassion.
The next day I am still bothered. I want an explanation. I want to categorize this experience, shelve it under “Avoided A Scam” and move on.
I make the mistake of watching Les Misérables. I become the heartless rich Parisian ignoring the plight of the poor French children, those kids holding signs at Costco. How could I be so judgmental?
A friend calls and reminds me of the time a woman faked her kid having cancer to get money. “Even the newspapers believed her,” my friend says. How could I not use good judgment?
Today, I feel like going to Costco and buying more olives. For six dollars I get a jar of mediocre olives, but I know it’s a fair deal. Olives don’t confuse me. They are pleasant. I take them home and put them on the shelf where they belong.
I try to forget about the kids with the dead mother who may not have a dead mother, while the avocados on my counter turn soft and brown and stringy. Near the two-pack cereal boxes in my pantry, the Greek olives sit securely on the shelf. Inside their jar the olives float like severed knuckles. They hold out hope that I will consume them before they expire.