Some days are harder than others, and even though I’d only been awake for two hours on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, it had already been a hard day. Sometimes our six year-old can muster open an emotional umbrella to keep the deluge of his feelings from sweeping him clean off his feet and whisking him away in a maelstrom of troubling behavior, but sometimes the umbrella sticks shut and he gets sucked down into a miserable Charybdis of distress that spits out ballistically at the rest of us. I’d been the recipient of several of those fallout projectiles already, and feeling at once the pique of unjustified ill-treatment and the even more distressful wound of worry, I thought it might be a good idea to put some distance between myself and the situation. I grabbed my keys and started the car with no idea where I was going aside from a general concept of “away from this” for a little while.
After a few minutes of aimless driving, I was in the area of a drive-through Starbucks and thought I’d assign it as a destination to my wandering, treat myself to a coffee, and bring back something for the kids have as a treat later, after the tempest had abated and the dust settled. I collected myself, infusing my tone with friendly cheer for the purpose of placing the order, and the voice of the girl on the intercom responded in kind. She was positively effervescent, ebullience practically exuding through the speaker system, and it felt so great to be met with such congeniality that I thought I was on the road to complete composure in time to return to the scene of family entropy. A few more deep breaths and I’d be ready to reboot.
I pulled up to the window to pay and collect my coffee and iced slice of lemon loaf to go, continuing the sociable stranger-banter that I was relearning how to carry on after so long in lockdown mode, and when the girl handed back my credit card, she offhandedly asked, “So where are you off to this morning?” In most cases this is a purely innocuous question, which is certainly how it was intended, but my response was to begin sobbing, much to her obvious astonishment and concern. Apparently I must have hidden my inner turmoil so successfully as to convince her that I was in a thoroughly happy-go-lucky frame of mind, and her horror at my reaction further horrified me at having burst our quippy bubble of small talk that had felt anything but small. She backed away from the window, understandably, as I babbled apologies and that I was going back home and it had been a rough morning with my kid, and she returned a few moments later with my coffees (I was bringing one home for said child’s father, who was still in the trenches of the homestead) and a brown paper sack of lemon cake.
I thanked her, apologizing again amidst her words of compassion and sympathy, and then she held out another small bag as I looked up to thank her one more time. “What’s that?” I asked, and she said, “I thought a cake pop might help cheer you up.” Inside the bag was, indeed, a cake pop, but it was unlike any cake pop I’d ever seen.
The Starbucks website describes their unicorn cake pop as consisting of “creamy vanilla cake with confetti sprinkles shaped into a unicorn, dipped in a white chocolaty icing and finished with a magical design”. Of all of the cheerful items in the pastry case, the sweet girl at Starbucks that day picked the most fanciful, the most sunshiny, the most fairy-tale treat she could, and she put it in a bag as a gift for me. Now, those of you who know me understand that this is not the kind of dessert I enjoy eating, but believe me when I say it’s one of the best desserts I’ve ever been given. Here I was, a woman alone in a minivan with two coffees and tears all over the sleeves of the shirt I’d worn to bed the night before, being handed a sugar-drenched treat decorated like a fantastical beast by a girl at least half my age in an effort to brighten my day.
She couldn’t have known how moved I was by this gesture, by the sheer generosity of spirit that drove the gift, by the realization that the reason she’d retreated in response to my outburst wasn’t discomfort, at least not completely; she saw what she saw and immediately did what she could, which probably felt like very little to her, but it meant a whole lot to me. And she couldn’t have known that so many times since then, during a trying moment of feeling ill-equipped to gracefully manage a painful parenting moment, I’d recall that morning and the sight of the frivolous little cake on a stick that I would never, ever order for myself, and it’s felt like a continuance of mercy. If she’d known me at all, she might have reached for a more healthful option with a fraction of the sugar, something far less adorable and colorful, but the fact that she was a stranger choosing the most flamboyant and whimsical delectation in hopes of providing comfort to a person feeling upset; well, it made it that much more meaningful. A sous-vide egg bite might have been more attractive to my palate, but the unicorn cake pop was just the richness my heart had been craving. And the message that accompanied it–the inestimable value of kindness simply for the sake of it–is surely the most delicious thing to have ever been handed through a drive-through window.