Being twelve, awkward, tender, and wise.

The boy coming toward me in the grocery store aisle was young – perhaps 11 or maybe 12 years old (I’m not terribly good at guessing these things).  He was close  to my own height (so not tall) and had a certain sense of vulnerability about his face and posture.  He was definitely younger than 14 – that time in life that in legal terms is called “tender aged” – a term I’ve always appreciated for its sensitivity to this gentle, unsure, inexperienced, age of being.

It was one of those inconvenient grocery aisles – slightly wider than most, but with stacks of things staggered down the center of it as well as along both its sides; one of those aisles where it’s hard to decide where to walk in either direction.

The boy was trying to step out of the way of oncoming shoppers, and kept finding himself right in the path of those going the other way.  He was apologizing over and over, and stepping first one way and then the other.  When he came to me, he apologized again and awkwardly sidestepped into the path of yet another cart.

“Excuse me.  I’m sorry,” he was repeating quietly to everyone around him.  

I tried to smile at him, tell him it wasn’t his fault.  But it’s rather hard to smile reassurance to someone while wearing a mask, so I simply moved on.

Just as I got to the end of the aisle, I heard a loud, angry male voice bellowing:  “Well, which way are you going, young man?  Make up your mind!”  It was an unkind voice.  It was directed at the boy still trying to navigate his way.

By this time, I had rounded the turn and I lost sight of the boy.  But all of it kept worrying my mind and heart.  And then, just as I took a place at the end of a checkout line, I turned and spotted the boy a few yards away – this time, he was with his parents.  And I left my cart and went over to him.  I told him I was sorry that the man had shouted at him.  I told him I knew he was only trying to be polite, and that I was sorry this adult had been rude to him.  And he kept saying that it was all right, that it was okay, that he understood – all with that small bit of a smile – that understated forgiveness – which children seem to have unconditionally within them. 

I had to leave him then, to reclaim my place in line, and we went our separate ways.

But I wish now that I had said more to him.  I wish I had told him I admired his kindness, his ability to relate to another – a stranger.  And to unhesitatingly forgive.  And yet, I suspect this “tender aged” child sensed the underlying truth of it all on his own.  Perhaps he felt instinctively that the old man may have been in pain (as so many of us are as we age) … or that the man may have recently lost his spouse or another being that he had loved for a very long time and was feeling terribly alone … or that he may have been worried about not being able to pay for all of his groceries.

Still, I wish I had taken the time.  Perhaps we could have talked about how none of us can ever know another person’s reasons for doing things.  And how sometimes we say hurtful things to each other without really meaning to.  And how sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t help but step in each other’s way. 

In the end, the boy had reminded me of how the world could be such a kinder, more tender place – for all of us of every age – if we could only keep our own “tender age” vulnerabilities and sensibilities about us – within our hearts and voices.  Along with the will to say I’m sorry.  The ability to forgive quickly and unconditionally.  The compassion to understand.  Perhaps just the capacity to be twelve, awkward, tender, and wise.

© Marti Healy 2022