It was one of those freak, 65-degree days in January and I had ventured downtown with London. We were at REI and I had just sat down at a patio table at the Starbucks there, overlooking Confluence Park and the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.
Our table was in the sun and London stayed in her stroller, which was positioned just right for her to eye every person walking by her on their way to get a coffee. Babies love people watching and London was clearly into it.
I pulled out my phone and casually checked my email and did a quick scan of Instagram. It was about two to three minutes of screen time before I heard an old woman speaking. She was seated with her husband, I assume, at a table directly across from our table, with the path for patio customers between us. I had started to eavesdrop because I heard her say to her husband, “Don’t you wonder about kids these days and what their vocabulary will be like as they start school?”
I couldn’t hear what her husband said in response. I continued listening, positioned in a way that I was facing London, now giving her a bottle, but I had my sunglasses on so my eyes were fixed on this lady and she could not tell.
What she said next made me freeze. “Well, that dad over there has said all of three words to his daughter since sitting down. He’s been playing with his phone and not talking to her at all.”
In that moment, I’m pretty sure I wanted to huck my iced coffee at her face. But she went on, bemoaning the sad state of parenting because of parents like me who look at their phone in the presence of their baby. I continued my stare, amazed that she could not see my eyes through my sunglasses and astonished that she would choose to say such things at all about someone sitting right across from her.
The old couple’s conversation eventually shifted to a different topic. Where I sat I did not need the hot, January sun to keep me warm anymore. My blood was boiling. For the next ten minutes I sat there thinking about what I would say to this woman, if anything at all, and how would I deliver the message? And every word I spoke to London I second-guessed, am I saying this to London just because of what that old lady said?
Was this a moment to hold my tongue and be the bigger person? Or did this justify letting this old hag know just how much her assessment of modern-day parenting was incorrect? I admit, normally, I would have let this lady walk by without saying a word, but I had never had my parenting called into question like this. I am no perfect parent, but speaking and reading to London is where I excel. I decided I had to defend this.
The couple had stood up, gathered their biking gear, and were making their exit, forced to walk right by me. My eyes did not leave that old lady as soon as she starting moving. This time she noticed my stare and as she was right by my table I said, “I heard every word you said about my daughter and I. I really didn’t appreciate it and wanted to let you know that you are wrong. I have read thousands of pages to my daughter and I think she’ll have a fine vocabulary.”
Old lady, immediately apologetic and surprised, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
No response from me. London stared at her and made some noises. “I can tell she’s trying to talk,” the old lady said.
“Yep,” I said, a little on the curt side, but hey, I think it’s pretty clear that I didn’t strike up this conversation to be friends with you so move along.
She felt like adding one more thing, “Well, it wasn’t like I was broadcasting it.” I did not acknowledge that and she got the hint and moved on. All the while her husband was a little behind her and I am pretty sure he missed the whole exchange. I gave him a wave and said, “Enjoy your ride.”
“Thank you,” he said, and walked on, completely unaware of what went down.
It was so liberating to let that woman know just how wrong and mean her comments had been. I watched her at a distance now, as she was getting onto her bicycle. There was a part of me that was hoping she would feel like an ass for the rest of the morning.
I think what that old lady said to her husband that day is so characteristic of some older or elderly people. It’s this feeling they sometimes get (or always have) that everything used to be better and now everything is going to shit, including parenting. As many people grow older the list of things they dislike and bemoan grows longer and longer. Eventually it is so long that most of the sentences coming out of their mouths are complaints. The worst of these are the most negative people to be around. This is a trait I loathe and one that I hope does not follow me into my golden years.
As a younger person it can be discouraging and exhausting to be around people who think everything is going to hell. I know it is very hard to be positive sometimes. And it is hard to hope. But try. Promise me that. And I’ll promise to read to my daughter today.