Why do I shop at Trader Joe’s? It’s small and compact and therefore eliminates my shopping nemesis: overwhelming choices. Plus, the employees actually seem to enjoy working there unlike some other stores. But most importantly, I love Trader Joe’s because of Joe-Joe. Joe-Joe is a little stuffed monkey that the employees hide somewhere in the store and if your little one finds it, they get a treat. (Your store may have something different; check with them before starting a fruitless search for a primate.) Joe-Joe keeps the little ones distracted and on their toes while mommy picks out the veggies that the little ones will refuse to eat.
Once when M (my daughter) was about 3 years old, we walked into TJ’s and she had her eyes searching for Joe-Joe. We were new to the whole TJ’s thing but like a little Pavlovian puppy M quickly learned “find Joe-Joe” equals “get cookies.” Cookies were the prizes the previous few times we were in there. Sure enough, M found the monkey and went up to the customer service counter. I watched as the employee brought around the large basket of goodies, lowered it to M’s arm level, but M did not immediately reach her hand into the goodie basket. I was off to the side and came over to see what her choices were. Oranges. Small, juicy tangerines to be exact. No sugar laden baked goods today. M, with her toddler candor, said, “Where’s the cookies?” The friendly TJ’s employee replied,“No cookies today, sweetie. Just fruit.” I told M, “Just pick one, honey.” (Mom lingo translated: “Hurry up before you embarrass me with what you will do next.”)
“I don’t want an orange.”
“Just take one and say thank you.”
“Okay, then it’s nothing.”
M looked into the basket and reached in, comparable to the expression of someone picking a lobster out of a tank for the first time.
“Thank you,” I said to the TJ’s employee before pulling M down an aisle to get out of her view.
It was in this aisle that I had the very pleasant talk full of contemplative insight about the meaning of receiving gifts…Wait. No, no I didn’t. I asked M why she would turn down something that she likes to eat. I then went on to explain how to handle a gift she does not want: either accept it and thank the person or supply them with a simple “no thank you” and move on.
A few days later, we were back at Trader Joe’s. M’s eyes hunted for the monkey and she was quick to find him. I followed her to the customer service desk where she informed the person as to Joe-Joe’s whereabouts. It was in slow motion as I watched the employee pull the basket from behind the counter and lower it for my little girl. I saw the orange spheres and took a deep breath. M looked at the employee, grabbed a tangerine, gave a quiet thank you and returned to her brother and me. I was proud she remembered the lesson; she was proud that I was pleased. There should have been a confetti canon going off but I couldn’t find one in time.
This story stuck with me because it happened at a particularly poignant time for my family. Like many other people, my husband and I were having financial trouble. Our lives were a metaphor for this: up until that point, we were given cookies, as in our life was sweet but not nourishing. During that financial hardship, our attentions and efforts turned inward to good family times that didn’t require currency. We went on walks together. We found parks in our area we had never visited before. We had picnics in the living room for lunch rather than going out to eat. These were our tangerine times: a bit sweeter and more nourishing.
I am not one inclined to think that God gives you good things as a reward or that He takes things away as a test. But I do believe he shows himself when we least expect it. For instance, when you are grocery shopping and given a free life lesson.