A crowded bookshop-cafe, a harried white female Cantabrigian of about forty, wearing hipster glasses and a fitted leather jacket. With a clipped, "Excuse me," she doesn't quite push her way past the line of customers, but cuts a vexed path through. Going around the side of the cakes counter, she gathers two metal scooters from where they'd been stowed and maneuvers them awkwardly toward the glass front of the store and out the door.
Not so much seen as impressed on me: a nearby gasp almost at the very instant that a nasty banging registers at the edge of my awareness. Turning, I spot the aftermath: little girl still bent back in recoil, hand to forehead, and an atmospheric sense, more than visual evidence, of a squall soon to release from her little mouth. But no - no squall. Only shock and worse: the feeling of tears held back, tears that any witness recognizes ought to fall, not falling. She is in a pink parka. She is black, about six years old. An older girl - not by much, maybe eight - stands behind her. They look like sisters. They had been, it begins to dawn, waiting outside the heavy glass door for the retrieval of their scooters, the littler one positioned unfortunately smack in the path the door cut when pushed open.
What happens is the mother does not comfort. She yanks rather furiously on the hand of the little one and draws her over to a bench. The larger one hovers in the vicinity. The mother - and I think she is obviously this, rather than a friend or aunt or babysitter, because who but a mother would dare be so publicly angry? - seems to be simultaneously inspecting the forehead and reprimanding the girl for having placed herself in the line of the swinging door. After some moments, the mother rises and herds her girls along, the older one riding her scooter, the younger one walking hers, her face now finally crumpling as she goes, and the mother, perhaps realizing she has drawn the attention of the shoppers and coffee drinkers densely milling or lounging on ironwork chairs outside the store, places a hand on the small girl's magenta shoulder a moment before removing it again.
Behind me on line two white women are, like me, observing the drama unfold through the transparency of the storefront, narrating the events to each other in decorous but aghast murmurs. "She isn't being at all nice," says one, and the other agrees, and I, too, am agreeing silently, wondering why I don't rush out there and provide the comfort so obviously missing from the scene. But whom do I wish to comfort? The little one in pink? Her older sister, in less obvious pain? Their white mother, who radiated anger as she brushed past me minutes ago on her way to scooter-retrieval?
Or is the wish to comfort more personal? Am I thinking of my own most ignominious moments as a mother of young children? Am I thinking of my mother's? Surely I am incapable of seeing a mixed race family without being reminded, even unconsciously, of my own, without certain tintypes involuntarily dislodging from my own memory: my white mother and black brother, and certain sidewalk scuffles or tantrums, on cold days like this one, with runny noses and hard cement sidewalks and breath visible in tight little puffs and stinging through the chapped rims of nostrils on the inhale, and hands miserable, fingers contracted against their own frozenness, even inside their mittens.
The women behind me on line continue their own sotto voce script a few moments more, and then the unhappy little family -- but who is to say? perhaps they are a strong, healthy little family, often happy but with their share of difficult times; and who knows what happened earlier this morning, what kinds of provocation the little one may have unleashed, the mother might have endured, or how much patience the mother had already lavished, stretched far as it could go; and who knows what laughter they might find on the way home, or, more modestly, what fragile but shiny offering of forgiveness, or anyway what cups of milk and slices of buttered toast they might eat together this afternoon in a warm kitchen with a plant on the sill? -- vanishes from sight and all the murmurs in the bookshop-cafe settle back into something more easeful, more in keeping with the holiday music and tinsel.
This morning's very public bump on the head spoke volumes. Undoubtedly it triggered within every one of the many reproachful, horrified or merely sympathetic witnesses an intricately textured, varicolored stratum of memories and associations, richly evocative, brilliantly charged with meaning. The one thing of which it spoke very little was the story of that particular mother and those two particular little girls. In that regard, save for a slight, perhaps unrepresentative playlet, it held its tongue.