Once, I watched an old woman abuse a small boy in the plus size department of a clothing store in central Tennessee.
It was some month in autumn, and the weather had turned ghastly. Heavy sheets of rain pounded against the store’s metal roof, swallowing up sounds of scratching hangers and murmuring shoppers.
I remember this clearly, in part because the old woman in question brandished a peach colored umbrella. The retractable micro kind that fits easily into a handbag.
I was barely thirteen years old, very small for my age, and extremely self-conscious. Rather than stand at the checkout counter alongside my wonderful mother, I had maneuvered myself into a separate section of the store so that, if a friend from school or gymnastics were to walk in, I wouldn’t be seen out with a parent. Back to a shelf of cardigans, I people watched from this safe distance.
She hurtled into my vision like an extension of the storm outside, two boys trailing in her wake. Both kids were skinny and dark like little shadows. The smaller of the two, who might have been five or six, was crying and pawing at the old woman’s leg. Grabbing the loose material of her sweatpants and twisting it around in his snatching little fingers, tugging on the hem of her shirt desperately. The older child, who looked no more than eight or nine, hurried along after them with his chin buried into his neck and his eyes fixed on the linoleum.
The woman was telling these kids to go sit and be good while she shopped.
Grandma with her grandkids, I told myself. Or at least, I decided that somewhere in the back of my mind, because whenever I’ve looked back on the situation since, I’ve always thought of them in this way. In reality, of course, it could have been an aunt with her nephews or a babysitter with her charges or any number of relations. But I thought of her as a grandma first and foremost, which made me think of my own sweet, diabetic grandma who crocheted afghans in her spare time. Which made what happened next seem even crueler, even more wrong.
A hiss from the grandma figure: “Go sit over there!”
More clinging and crying from the little boy.
Instead of hissing something else, the woman lifted her umbrella up and brought it down in a short, fierce arc over the little kid’s head. Both of his stick arms flew up to cover his skull, and she hit his exposed face next, with the wet, peachy end of the umbrella. The spokes gouged the skin of his nose, leaving bloody scratches where they had made contact. She struck him two more times after that, on the top of his head, hard. Then she pushed him loose and floated off into the stacks of plus size bottoms as if nothing had happened.
Helplessness is being thirteen years old, pressing yourself against a shelf of cardigans, and watching an adult beat a crying child with an umbrella.
Or at least, that’s what it felt like to me in the first moment. I could feel some horrified expression frozen on my face, but my horror was a wordless kind and I didn’t make a sound as the old woman left the two boys alone, to sit by themselves and let her shop in peace. I watched as they kneeled next to a circular rack of clothes, side by side, without looking at each other or speaking. As the only employee in sight folded methodically far across the store, oblivious to the brief moment of violence that had elapsed just seconds before.
There is a feeling that I’ve experienced only a handful of times in life. It’s a tick tock, fight or flight, must-act-now-before-it’s-too-late, kind of feeling. The feeling of intense urgency that leaves little space for deliberation, that brings blood rushing to your ears and heartbeat pounding into your bones. I felt it at thirteen, as I peeled myself off the cardigan shelf and moved towards the crying boy.
Caught between hoping that my mother would arrive and worrying that at any moment the old woman might return. I hesitated before kneeling and asking:
“Are you okay?”
I can imagine what you’re thinking. Of all the helpful words I might have chosen, I selected these three useless ones, when the child was clearly not okay. I might as well have asked if was raining outside. Worse, I didn’t seek out the help of an adult who might have picked better words, words that could have been spoken into a phone and caught by a social worker at the other end of the line (more on this later).
But in that urgent moment, facing bloodied skin and quivering, chapped lips, it was the only thing I could think to say. “Are you okay?” I asked, and the little boy just looked at me through long lashes and a raincloud of tears. He turned to his older brother.
The word, spoken from such a tiny frame, conveyed a surprising depth of anger. The older boy breathed it like a challenge and stared into my eyes like he hated me. Then he stood up, pulling the crying child to his feet with one arm, and they disappeared deeper into the department store, leaving me reeling.
This was the first time I ever witnessed child abuse among strangers. I have no way of knowing who the two boys were or where they are now, but I think about them often. I hope they are safe. I worry they’re not. I think about the sickening, paralyzed helplessness I felt seeing the umbrella make contact over and over and over and over again. The competing twin voices in my thirteen year old head: don’t get involved versus do something.
Exact statistics differ slightly among reports, but sources show that for all the cases of child abuse that are reported, far more go unreported. Each state has its own mandatory reporting law for child abuse and neglect, and each has a hotline number to call in the case of suspected abuse. (These can be found here).
Retrospectively, I know that I didn’t have much information to provide case managers with for any investigation on suspected abuse. But I wish I had thought to report what I had seen, or to confront the old woman, or to have immediately run and brought my mother (or even the closest adult shopper). Instead, I had given the boys a look that might have conveyed anything from pity to panic and one remarkably useless inquiry into their wellbeing. They deserved so much more.