We could have been, no, we would have been friends, I thought this morning grinding the Columbian coffee beans I’d bought at the grocery store on Wednesday. Her casual comment while grabbing the coffee bean pack as she bleeped it across the monitor told me so. Her “Wow! Doesn’t that coffee smell good?” opened up such friendliness at my Waitrose shop. Granted, I am always a ready recipient for conversation. Much, to my kids’ embarrassment, I can’t help myself and will talk to most anyone who shows any interest in talking to me. I answer questions freely “Where’s your accent from?” or “Is that your natural hair colour?” or “Do you know how to get to/find/work(feel free to fill in the blank)?” In my defence, please may it be noted that for some reason there is something about my face that makes me look, not necessarily knowledgeable, but at least approachable to answering questions when people are lost or needing help…thus the regular questioning by strangers!

At any rate, I’m not just generous with my, some times, best-guess answers, I’m good at brandishing compliments, too. To taxi drivers, waiters, bartenders, nurses, receptionists, tradesmen, secretaries, operators, dry cleaners, butchers, drive-through servers, cleaners, delivery people, checkout clerks and, of course, baristas—all the incidental people I meet in my daily life. If we’ve had a positive experience, I’m always at the ready to thank them–and not in generalities. It is important to me to be specific as to how their particular brand of thoughtfulness, attentiveness or warmth of nature has been shared so generously with me and mine, and is truly appreciated. 

In England, no doubt, my behaviour can be written off as “profusely-over-the-top-American” activity when in reality, no matter where, I always conduct myself so. It’s less a cultural attribute and more a personal mantra kinda thing. In fact, whenever we travel internationally, I always make it a point to find out at least how to say “Thank you” in the local language. Again my kids snigger when I joyfully throw around my “Grazie-s, Gracias-s, and Eυχαριστώ (efharisto)-s” in Italy, Spain and Greece…laughing mostly, because they know, with the exception of Italian (thanks to Duolingo), that the “thanks” is the limit of my local language skills. But I don’t care. In truth, I feel unnerved if I don’t have the simple words to express how much I appreciate someone; I see someone. My ex-husband used to jokingly call me, “Courteous Kelly” when I’d return a kid’s ball at the beach and make sure to thank them for building such a cool sandcastle along the way. Flip flops nearly being washed out by an incoming tide or towels at risk of getting dampened by the sea as their owner wanders somewhere along a beach, keep me busy on holiday. It’s not that I’m trying to be a people pleaser—far from it—it’s that I really hold it in the highest importance to truly, genuinely acknowledge other people which often comes with thanking them. Mostly, I like to make them know they count, at the very least, to me. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna. Rub me the wrong way, offend (in my eyes) my family, my friends or my pets, fail miserably at a job you’ve been hired to do, and my tongue turns acerbic. I am even known to forget your name if I feel you’ve fallen short on a personal front. This has been a long term issue for me. One job review from thirty years ago, still makes my cheeks redden at the thought it was expressed with such accuracy as constructive criticism by my boss. “Kelly,” he said, “You don’t suffer fools gladly” and then he rightfully advised, “You need to get better at that.” I had to agree. 

To my credit, however, I must confess it takes a long time to make me mad BUT cross the line, and I am quick to set any bridges between us alight with my temper and indignation. Not one of my best traits, I admit. In fact, I always admire those who can be diplomatic and patient so as to find a way forward when mistakes have been made or attitudes offended. I so appreciate how people can be quietly strong in their convictions yet willing to be the butt of my angry joke; forgive the striking out of my stress on them. Somehow, they remain unwavering in their tolerance of me. They often hear me out even when what I’m saying is far from fair and instead take the time to guide me to more measured ground. 

Over the years, since that job review, I like to think I’ve tempered my approach but, in truth, I’m still working at it. I try and note now when I’m starting to lose my balance. I try to slow down my sometimes judgemental reaction by reminding myself this: everyone has a story. Their behaviour in performing poorly, rudely, or apparently thoughtlessly, could all be attributed to where they’ve come from and what they carry. Something not always known to me.

I guess that’s why I return to Wednesday’s checkout lady and my utter appreciation for her warmth towards me. Her seeming interest in my story that day. Behind our masks, at a safe distance on either side of the perspex-glass-ed, pandemic-safe counter, in the banality of checking out my grocery order, she managed to make a human connection with me. A much-missed, in-person interaction that spoke to me as an individual. Our conversation ran the gamut. We chatted about the goodness of the coffee aroma, my buying four steaks instead of three because Skyler now needs two for his seventeen-year-old appetite as we both laughed about our teenaged sons eating us out of house and home. She admired the set of tapas plates I’d put on the conveyor belt and I told her about Megan’s longing for Madrid and my hope the plates would, until she could get there herself, bring her some Spain in her flat in Fulham. She told me about how her daughter, who was in her first year at university had only been able to go to one term at Cambridge this academic year to study Architecture. We agreed how much we felt for every generation over the course of this pandemic, but as mothers, how it was particularly hard on our hearts watching how our children had been impacted. The older ones feeling anxious and exhausted by being stuck in ‘pause’ while they desperately waited to press the ‘play’, if not the ‘fast forward’, button, so they could get to a good part of life again. The younger ones (we found we both had two older children with a bigger break than “normal” for our third) amazingly mastering their zoom education while they pined for their friends during the full lockdown. We both acknowledged as well the knock on effect of the harsh realities of returning to school accompanied by the anxiety of getting back to “normal’. We exchanged all of this as we efficiently worked our way through £300 worth of groceries being blipped, bagged and bought.

I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to realise such a conversation, an engagement with one of my favourite kind of people was still possible. Strangers really, but when they cross my path, they can feel more like acquaintances, friends even, for a moment. When I was ready, it took a good ole shove to get my trolly manoeuvred around and pointing towards the car park entrance. Even though I was laden with my bags of food and tapas plates, before the next customer shimmed up to their turn at the checkout, I tried to look this woman in the face and smile so she knew underneath my mask, my mouth mirrored my eyes. “Thank you so much,” I said simply. “Thank for the conversation,” as I shoved a little harder to shift my carts wheels into motion. She seemed to pause a moment, to truly hear me, and returned my comment without any sense of insincerity in her use of the hackneyed phrase, “Have a nice day!” Instead, her final wish reached out to me, beyond the mask, and nudged me forward out into the world inspired by her sharing a bit of her story matched with a generous serving of kindness as contagious as COVID.