As I approached my place at the back of the layaway pick-up line last Friday morning, I let out a heavy sigh. Having avoided stepping into a single store last Christmas by shopping online, I was not mentally prepared for the layaway department. No. In fact, I was filled with dread.
Reading the long, forlorn faces of those poor souls who stood behind the counter, I guessed that the layaway department wasn't the happiest place to be on that day. About 15 customers stood ahead of me in line while another 15 waited on the other side of the room, some staring at their cell phones and others watching the employees. No one, employee or customer, looked particularly thrilled.
"I've been here for over an hour," a woman snapped from where she stood along the wall, "I still don't have my stuff!" Everyone turned to look as she waved her receipt above her head. She demanded the presence of a manager.
The woman at the counter looked helpless under the weight of this woman's scowl. I could understand the woman's anger, having stood idly for so long waiting for items she'd already paid for. For a moment I felt a twinge of anger myself, wondering if the same fate awaited me as my two preschoolers were due home on the bus within the hour. Almost immediately, a manager appeared, beckoning for the woman's receipt.
As that woman fussed with the manager over whether or not anyone was even looking for her items, I fell into a daze. The various voices faded and I tried to think of something pleasant — like a hot peppermint mocha. It proved hard to meditate over anything soothing in the layaway line, however. The stress seemingly just oozed from every face, whether in the form of an irritated stare or in the irate tone of a customer.
Fifteen minutes passed and I was finally second in line. The woman without her stuff remained waiting, her eyes ablaze. I noticed the customer ahead of me reach out to the employee behind the counter and touch her wrist.
"You poor thing. You shouldn't be working today," said the customer. After some listening I learned that this employee's sister just had a baby and after a hard delivery, the new mother had suffered a stroke. Her sibling, who now stood before me, was working her shift as usual because she absolutely needed the money for her family – but really, really wanted to be with her sister and new baby niece in the hospital. I could see the tears forming in her eyes as she scanned a bar code. She managed to smile anyway and wished the customer a merry Christmas.
Behind me, the manager was busy apologizing to the angry woman as other employees finally arrived with her boxes of toys. One toy was missing and the manager apologized another several times. I could tell that the woman didn't want to hear any of it. She was mad and determined to stay that way. Another employee rushed back into the storage room and appeared another five minutes later with the correct box. There was more apologizing. Even as the angry woman pushed her full cart out of the room toward the exit, she huffed and puffed.
Eventually I was also waiting… waiting… waiting… for the Christmas presents I'd put in layaway. There wasn't much room where I waited and I started to feel my claustrophobia setting in. I looked at my phone to make sure I was still on schedule to get home and pick up my kids off the bus.
A tall, bulky man with scruffy brown hair took his place at the back of the line. He entered the room with a smile and he glanced around, offering that smile to anyone who'd look. I disappeared into my phone.
"This should be fun," the man said loud enough for those closest to hear, "I remember standing here last year. I was here for an hour."
An older woman stood in front of him and turned to laugh softly, "This is nothing. You should have been here on Black Friday."
The man tucked his hands in the pockets of his overalls and nodded, "I was here on Black Friday, too."
"Really? Did you snag one of those TV's they had on sale?" the older woman asked, "That was the only reason I came."
"Yes, I got one of those. I also got the Wii. I wasn't planning on getting a Wii but the price was too good. It was the last one, too. So in the cart it went! The check out line went all the way back to electronics."
"Yes, the lines were very, very long. I can't believe I waited that long in line for some silly toys."
The man grinned wider. "Oh, you know it's worth it. I can't wait to see the smile on my daughter's face Christmas morning. She's six. I just can't wait. All this stress is worth it for me when I see her so happy."
Others took notice of this man's genuine joy toward something as simple as his daughter's smile. More faces turned toward him.
I put my phone back in my purse. I thought of my own children and the gifts they would open. They too, would smile that same way on Christmas morning when they realized that Santa had been to our house. Oh yes, I thought. That's why I was standing there to begin with. For my family.
Maybe that angry woman's kids would smile too — or maybe they would scowl and complain because they received all the wrong things. Either way, I was thankful for that man to have walked in when he did to remind me that it's okay to smile in times of stress. There are always reasons to smile, no matter what. Even in layaway.
EJ Curran is a Delaware mom. This post was adapted from her blog, FourLittleMonsters.