Grocery shopping. It's become more of a social event for me than it is a matter of necessity. The florist and the produce guy have become friends of mine over the years, and we always make a point to catch up when I'm in there. I like that; so many of the "hometown" niceties are falling by the wayside these days.
About a week ago, I was tooling up and down the aisles of my favorite store, shopping for the week and adding a few of our granddaughter's favorites to my cart as I strolled. Her visits are so much fun, and we love spoiling her. My quiet reverie was shattered by a man's voice; he spoke harshly and in what I'd call a threatening tone. The sound was so out of context (who gets that angry in a grocery store?) that I was startled, and I jumped.
This man, who really was a large and imposing guy, was speaking in that manner to a little girl who was riding in the cart. She was about 5 years old, I'd guess, and she was looking back at him, wide-eyed and nervous. The sight was so disturbing, I stopped and watched them as they continued down the aisle in the opposite direction. "Well maybe she did something that scared him for her safety. People can react that way when they perceive that their child is in danger," I told myself. "Probably looks worse to an outsider than it really is."
The problem, of course, is that it was exactly what it appeared to be. The man continued his tirade throughout the store, and I passed them several times as he did.
"What did I tell you I was gonna do if you don't stop it?" he bellowed.
No! We ain't buying that!"
"I'm going to beat your *$^& if you don't stop it!"
I wish I were exaggerating but sadly, I am not. By the time I pushed my cart to the checkout line, I was shaking and nauseated. He and the little girl (I assume she was his child, but I can't know that for sure) were in the line next to mine, and he didn't miss a beat, barking and haranguing the child, who looked heartbreakingly resigned and defeated. Customers looked on, shaking their heads. I stared at him, trying I suppose to stare a hole right through him. He actually told me to mind my own business and at a loss for words (which is rare for me, I assure you), I replied simply that it was hard to, with his yelling at her like he was.
And that's all I said. I'm actually ashamed to type that, but that's all I said to that horrid man. Other customers made clear their disapproval with looks and murmurs, but none of that stopped him, or protected her. I paid for my groceries, loaded them into my car, and when I sat down in the drier's seat, I began to cry. No, make that sob. I sobbed as I sat there, all alone, in a busy parking lot. Of course, the man and the child were parked a couple of rows over from me, and I watched him pick her up, put her in the back seat, and slam the door. As he backed out of his parking spot, I wrote down his license plate number. That was it.
That was all I could offer that poor little girl – nothing. Why? What stopped me and dozens of other shoppers and store employees from stepping in and saying something to him? We are so fond in this country of saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." Who, then, does it take to protect one?
Had he struck her, I know that I and others would have intervened and stopped him. There's a difference between popping a misbehaving child on the fanny and what this guy was doing. The little girl was doing absolutely nothing wrong, from what I could see. Even if she were, his threatening tone and bellowing voice were completely unwarranted. No child should have to hear that. He was angry, and she was a small and defenseless target for his anger.
I have thought so much about that incident since it happened. I've lost more than one night's sleep over it. And it occurred to me that our reluctance – my reluctance - to step in and protect the little girl from the man's verbal abuse is not so different from our reluctance to call verbal abuse of an adult what it is: abuse. Bruises aren't the only marks left behind by a bully; the marks left by emotional abuse run far deeper and hurt much longer.
Little girl, wherever you are, I truly ask your forgiveness for not coming to your aid. I imagine, much too vividly sometimes, what you must endure at home if that's what "daddy" acts like in public. And I am sorry.
That's a pitiful substitute for what I should have done but in all honesty I ask, what would have been the best course of action? Should a stranger step in when a child is being verbally battered in public? Remember the man in Wal-Mart who smacked the screaming kid whose mom wouldn't (or couldn't) stop the screaming? Different scenarios, but our litigation-happy society makes us think twice about doing what appears – in every way – to seem to be the right thing..
I ask sincerely, for myself and for the edification of others, what would the right thing to do have been?
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. Her fourth book, BLOOD IN THE SOIL, was published in 2016. It is the true tale of a crime that took place in Gwinnett County nearly 40 years ago. Her previous three books are written with Southern humor. Carole often appears on network television talk and news shows, as well as on national true crime radio shows. Her books can be found in bookstores, on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, and at www.caroletownsend.com. When she’s not writing, Carole travels throughout the southeast, talking to groups about women, writing, family and life in her beloved South.