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In the middle of making lemon meringue pie one day, I discovered I was out of cream of tartar. I scoured the cupboard for the short red-topped container, necessary for the meringue to make nice stiff peaks. A few minutes later I poked my head into the garage where my husband sanded a wood chess board he was building. "I've got to run to the store. I'll be right back."
At the store I located the key ingredient in the spice rack on the baking aisle and hurried to the register to make my purchase. Standing in the shortest of the two checkout lines, I glanced at my watch.
A woman in front of me with a ten-year-old boy dug through her purse for enough money to cover her groceries. The clerk acted like she had all day, while I took a deep breath, glanced again at my watch, and waited. Timing is critical to making a successful lemon meringue pie, so I didn't want the filling to cool before I piled on the meringue. Finally the woman paid the checker. She scooped up her bag and walked toward the exit, while her son grabbed the gallon of milk sitting on the counter.
Dawdling along behind her, the boy tossed the jug in the air, then caught it like a football player on the opponent's eighty-yard line ready to make the goal. Several more throws, like an expert each time he managed to catch the heavy container. That is until the jug slipped through his fingers and slammed onto the tile floor with a smack. The plastic jug split open. Milk gurgled out.
The mother turned to see a white puddle pooled around her son's feet. "Oh, no." In an instant her despair changed to an angry flash. "Look what you've done." Waving her arms in the air her voice escalated loud enough to be heard throughout the building. "That's all the milk we have. There's no more money for two weeks."
Distracted by the commotion, every employee and customer in the front of the store stopped what they were doing to watch the real-life drama.
The mother's arms fell limp at her sides and tears filled her eyes.
Not until the whole unfortunate scene did her appearance capture my attention. A life of struggles and hardship, apparent on her weathered face, matched her tattered coat. Gray streaked her faded blonde hair.
Her son stood in the spilled milk, his head down, shoulders slumped, as she shook her head and mouthed a weak groan.
No one came to her rescue. An uncomfortable silence filled the air while everyone remained frozen. The clerks didn't even call for a mop-up crew.
My stomach churned while I battled an old voice in my head warning me, "Don't get involved. Just look the other way." And what about my pie waiting on the counter at home? But then I heard our pastor's challenge from the previous Sunday sermon, "Look for opportunities to live a generous life."
I stepped forward away from the staring crowd, "Excuse me, uh … I raised two boys," I stumbled. "I haven't paid for my groceries yet. If you grab another gallon, I'll take care of it."
Mother and son didn't say a word. Cautious they stared at me like I was an alien.
"Really, come on," I said. "Let's get your milk so we can be on our way." Her shoulders relaxed. She hesitated as I turned toward the dairy aisle and then followed me.
"My boys were always doing stuff like that," I said to ease the woman's embarrassment. "Once my son played catch with a watermelon." I laughed. "Only that melon slid right through his hands and splatted all over the store parking lot."
"Is this the brand?" I said when we reached the dairy case. "Do you need two?"
The woman pointed. "Yes. And one's fine."
We returned to the check stand. After the clerk scanned my purchase, I handed the milk to the boy. "I know it's tempting, but best not to toss this one. Okay?"
With a sheepish grin he nodded. "Yah. Thanks lady."
"You're welcome. Have a better day."
A girl mopped the milky mess as I hurried out the store headed home to rescue my pie.
While the meringue baked to a golden brown, I considered our pastor's sermon. I realized you don't have to be rich to help someone.
**Note: "The Challenge" first printed October 2015 in LIVE a publication by Gospel Publishing House.
© 2014 Kathleen Kohler