The Smiling Woman: How a Stranger Saved Me
This month marks the 10-year anniversary of my re-entry into Corporate America. I had been working at home on a consulting basis and had a couple of regular clients and ad hoc projects, with my kids at a nearby daycare center part-time. But when my favorite client could not renew my contract, I updated my resume and began interviewing.
After nearly two months, I was in very serious negotiations and had a few options. One was a contract position that I’d have to work in the client’s office, one was a full-time job (also in an office), and one was continuing project work at home, because my number had come up in the subsidized childcare lottery months earlier than had been promised. However, if I took either the contract or the full-time job, the compensation would render me ineligible for childcare assistance.
I chose the job because I knew it would be the first step on a path to increasing the depth and breadth of my professional skills, as well as for the financial security. It did not come without a significant re-entry fee, though.
I had to commute to a new daycare seven miles out of town (because it was the only one I could afford: the more convenient one was $50 more per week, and the one we had been using not only operated on a school calendar as opposed to a business calendar, but also would have been unaffordable on a full-time basis), then backtrack the same seven miles before I even started my "real” commute. I exercised school choice and sent my oldest to kindergarten in the town where the daycare was. The morning routine was often rushed and it took an hour and a half to drop the kids off and get to work. I knew I had to leave work by a certain time – noticeably earlier than most, which meant I often ate lunch at my desk – in order to pick up the kids, or I’d be fined a dollar a minute each. I was never late, but I was often the last parent there. I hated being so far away from my kids. Early on, the benefits of the job did not outweigh the cost.
There was a high-school crossing guard that I used to pass every morning to and from daycare, which was just a bit further west than the school. Often times on my way there I’d be tense and cranky, clutching the steering wheel as if it were a life preserver, because it was such an ordeal to get everyone out the door on time.
But then there was the crossing guard, “The Smiling Woman,” as I used to call her to the boys. She always appeared so cheerful, waving and signaling at a very busy intersection in front of the school where there is also a shopping plaza, a McDonald’s, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a pizza place. As we passed her, my tension dissipated and I could lean back in the driver’s seat and breathe again. I knew I needed to emulate her attitude to encourage the boys to be happy about arriving for another full day of daycare.
They weren’t. They’d run to the window to watch me leave, crying, as the teacher stooped over next to them telling them, “Wave bye bye to Mommy!” with the same bright, encouraging tone that I had used to get them out of the car and in the door. After a few weeks, they’d just watch, resigned. Ultimately, they would wave goodbye, willingly, cheerfully, on their own, but until we got through that transition, I often cried during the first half of my commute thinking about their pinched up little faces, attempting stoicism.
But not if The Smiling Woman was still directing traffic. First of all, that meant I wasn’t going to be late for work, and second, when someone is smiling and waving as much as she was, it’s contagious. It was next to impossible for me to feel tense or sad.
After a couple of years, the Bigs were older and both attending our local elementary school and after-school program because I had secured a telecommuting position. My youngest still went to the same daycare and it worked fine for him since it was all he’d ever known, but because we didn’t have to get there so early, we didn’t see The Smiling Woman and I didn’t think much about her anymore.
Until one day, I decided to stop in at the supermarket after morning daycare drop off, and there she was, in the soup aisle! Immediately, I thought I should tell her how much her presence meant to me years before. Then I thought, “No, that’s weird – she’ll think I’m nuts.” I talked myself in and out of approaching her as I stalked her through the cracker aisle, the bread aisle, the frozen foods area, and then finally, in the dairy aisle, right near the cottage cheese – which is somewhere between the eggs and orange juice – I said, “Excuse me” and touched her arm.
She turned and smiled at me, the same smile I saw every day for nearly two years, and all the feelings of years before rushed back to me: my worry, my stress, and my sadness, which had ultimately fueled my determination, my security, and my joy. My eyes welled up with tears as I remembered exactly how hard that phase of my life had been (though at the time, I hadn’t thought much of it at all, knowing that regardless of how I felt about anything, the show must go on).
“Yes?” she said, blinking as she no doubt tried to place me.
“I used to drive by you every morning and I just wanted to tell you how much it meant to me to see your smiling face when I was commuting. You were always out in the middle of the road no matter what the weather and it must have been cold and yucky when slush splashed on you because people drove by in a hurry and you were always waving and smiling anyway. You just made me feel better about things, about everything, and I wanted to thank you.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for telling me that – you really made my day!”
She apparently she did not think it was weird or that I was nuts, because we conversed for a bit as people wheeled their carts around mine, which was parked next to a little table with a display of donuts. Before I moved on to pick out milk and yogurt, we hugged.
I’ve never seen her since and never learned her name, but I will never forget her.
Caroline B. Poser <><