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I can't get it out of my head

"Help is on the way." That's what I wanted to say recently when I stood behind a mother struggling with two small children at a grocery store check-out counter.

I noticed them because she was so patient with her energetic preschoolers and because her food choices were impressive. There was more colorful produce in that overflowing cart than there was packaged or processed food. No sugary cereals. It was basic food — heavy on the kind of things we all like to have stocked in our pantries and cupboards to get us through a long month.

And then it happened. The mom had written a check in payment for the groceries and was awaiting a receipt when the clerk called for the manager — using some imperative-sounding, code word.

I intuitively felt the same unease I saw in the mother's face. The manager came quickly. He barely glanced at the register, did not even talk to the clerk. He just pulled the woman aside and spoke down to her — literally. He was about 6 feet 4 inches tall. She was a slightly disheveled, young and tiny mama.

As their conversation began, the boys became quiet. It was a short exchange — I overheard part of it. "Do you have any other way to pay"¦" and I saw her head shake slightly. The conversation ended, and the two small candy canes she still held in her hand as "treats if you're good" went back on the counter and she and her children left the store.

It happened very fast. Had I been farther back in line I may not have even noticed. The bagged groceries remained and the register still read $143.92 as the belt began to move my food items forward. I was unsettled by what had just happened, and said to the clerk. "That was very sad."

And her response, "Oh, it happens all the time."

I share this story because I cannot get it out of my head. I'm self-flagellating, I suppose — thinking I should have intervened in some way. Had the groceries not been so expensive I might have offered to pay. But that would have called attention to the situation and possibly made it more embarrassing for her than it clearly already was. I'm thinking I could have abandoned my own shopping and followed her into the parking lot, asking what I might do to help "¦ but I didn't. So now I am doing this.

Let's help her. And moms like her — ourselves in the process.

Every day between now and Christmas join me in doing two small things to support someone in need. You decide who and how. This newspaper is full of ideas and the United Way "Hank's Bank" is a good start. I sent my contribution today. But it doesn't need to be money — it can be food items from your own cupboard or clothing and furniture donations. Maybe it's a gift of time.

I am asking for two small acts of caring each day — but feel free to do three or more. In fact, we might even want to keep it happening after the season ends.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.