The oddest thing happened when I was shopping at Costco.

Everyone knows that the sample ladies are in great demand. On the weekend, I’ve seen parents send their kids to various food stations to scarf up free stuff. There are adults who’ll appear when the women are setting up their electric frying pans, demanding when the food will be ready. Doesn’t matter what it is – rice pudding (eeuuuw), spicy salami, hummus on pita chips, cheese cubes, kielbasa, crab and onion dip. There’s usually a theme – fatty, salty, creamy.

I usually avoid them because I don’t go to Costco to snack, but the other day there was an older lady with a lot of hair stuffed under her hair net. She had a pleasant face. On the table in front of her was a box of what looked like green sticks. She was in the aisle before the dairy cooler so before I got eggs and a big bag of yogurt, I slowed down and asked her what they were. She said they were ‘pea snacks’, made from ground up green peas with some potato flakes. High fibre with a bit of fat for taste. The list of ingredients was short. I took a sample and they were tasty. Packed in 100 calorie bags, which works fine for me – keeps me from over-indulging because I don’t have the nerve to rip open two bags one after the other.

be-kindAnyway, she apologized for being slow and late getting the food out. I told her not to worry and packed a box in my buggy. Then she blurted out, “My mother’s dying” and continued filling those pleated white paper cups with four samples.

“Oh,” I said. “That must be so hard for you. I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “Well, it’s been coming for a while. I have to finish my shift before I can go to the hospital or else I won’t get paid.”

I said, “I’m sorry” again, at a loss for what to say or do, meaning that her mother dying was bad enough but worrying about a few hours of work must have been even worse. WTF? I know that the sampler folks are not Costco employees but some external marketing firm.

She looked up at me. Her smile was lopsided. “I need the work. I can’t just leave now, can I?”

I patted her arm because I couldn’t think of what else to do. Inside, I was thinking, shit, the poor woman’s mother is in the hospital ready to breathe her last and the daughter has to dole out frigging snack food for the next three hours so that she can pay her rent or buy groceries or gas. Why wasn’t there any compassionate leave? Was she too fearful of being sacked to ask for a few hours off the clock? I was really pissed, but felt helpless, too. My biggest worry so far that day had been whether to buy the fuchsia coloured oxford cloth blouse for $9.95 or the turquoise version.

I was being jostled by a couple of eager taste-testers who wanted me to get out of their path to the food table. I stepped aside and murmured something inane to her like, “stay strong”. Sometimes, I thought, life sucks really badly.

As I turned away to move my buggy, someone said something to her and I heard her pipe up, “Oh, I’m a bit slow setting up today. My mother’s dying you know.”

I felt foolish for feeling sorry for her. Why? Because I’d thought she’d accidentally shared something private and important when she was overwrought. But there she was, not 30 seconds later, re-announcing it to whatever schlepp lined up for a sample of those damned pea-flavoured chips. And it occurred to me that was her mantra, her claim to fame for however long it lasted – announcing that her mother was dying to strangers in the middle of a big box store aisle.

Hub is right. I’m too sensitive, too willing to leap to some downtrodden soul’s defence. If I hadn’t been pushed out of the way, I might have marched up to the store manager and asked him to give her the time off. Good thing I didn’t. Will I ever learn?