Where we put things

Greek OlivesMy 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?

The children in Les Miserables

The children in Les Miserables

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.

11 thoughts on “Where we put things

  1. Meagan, your instincts are probably correct: it was likely a scam.
    I have no sympathy for sign-holding types. My dad’s brother was a bum (by choice) and he revealed to my dad once that the recipients of your hard-earned cash think you’re suckers for giving it to them.
    I earn the money I have, I haven’t asked for anything, and I’m not susceptible to guilt trips — not from people I care about and know, much much less from those I do not. Be guilt free (and yeah, I know that’s easier to say than it is to do).

  2. My rehab includes limited trips to Costco. Don’t know if you know this, but avocados last about 6 wks (they say) in the frige. Get them ripe and then stick them in the bin, and they last much, much longer. I always get that bag!

    I see these folks with signs out there, and I always wonder… what is the real story. I feel guilty wondering, and I feel conflicted about what to do. Kids, that’s tough. I have a half written draft that’s been there for ages about folks asking for money… it’s just tough to know what’s right, and where this goes. Really nice post.

    • Limiting Costco visitations is good. I had a friend on FB comment about avocados and the refrigerator…I guess I should move mine off the counter and into the bin.

      Would be curious to see your musings on the panhandlers. Are they ever real? Do people ever run out of gas in a mall parking lot and have to ask for money? Sometimes I think we give them money because we think, “What if that were me or my child or my friend? I’d want someone to show compassion.” There have always been snake oil salesmen, that’s for sure, but it gets complicated when you add in a tough economy, mental illness, a widening gap between the haves and have nots, homelessness…it’s so difficult to know what to do. I hate momentary fixes. I’d rather look at the system. But that’s so extremely complex. I guess that’s why I’m writing about it. Sorry for the long reply. 🙂

  3. I always appreciate CostCo when I get to Anchorage. Seems so baroque that Anchorage has two of them. With my current transition situation I’m learning about the false economy potential of bulk buying, but if you have good storage space it makes a lot of sense.
    Yes, what they said. Those avos are a great deal and they last surprisingly long in the fridge.
    I saw Les Mis on the plane back from Israel–can see how it would be the worst thing to see in this context.
    But it sounds like your sweet m-i-l is soft-hearted and her sentiments warred with your instincts plus your maternal feelings. Not that I know a sweet single thing.

    • I always love your comments, Ela. You know MANY things. I am better off not that I know to refrigerate the avocados, and I do try to limit my bulk buying, though I did just go back for more avocados and two bags of flat bread. Baby steps.

  4. Hi Meagan,

    Of all the comments and replies, I like this thought from you best;

    “But I don’t think I want to be guilt-free.”

    Walking away in blissful relief that you didn’t give money to some scamming kids is not a comforting thought or feeling. I think we SHOULD be conflicted. That’s what makes us human.

    Do I think it was a scam? It doesn’t matter. If kids are placed in a position to either panhandle for money to pay for a funeral, or to eat, or to pay for a grownup’s drugs, it’s all sad and senseless. You giving them money won’t change the outcome, no matter what the situation.

    It’s never easy to walk by a person in need, whether it’s real or a scam. We don’t really know how to respond. We don’t really know how to help. You are a kind person who will always have her heart strings tugged, and wonder what the truth is. The truth is you will feel for kids asking for money, whether it’s a scam or not.

    • Patti,
      Thank you so much for your kind and heartfelt reply. Yes, putting kids in a position like that IS sad and senseless. And no, I don’t think it should be easy to walk by a person in need. Even if I know I can’t give them what they need, I still want to do something and feel terrible when I don’t/can’t. I bet you do, too. Thanks for taking the time to let me know that you “got” what I was trying to say.

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