Author: Martha Zaytoun

Anthony was always my mom’s favorite grocery store clerk. Any question she had, he could answer. In a matter of seconds. Always a smile on his face. 

During my childhood, trips to the grocery store were always something of a treat. Browsing the aisles; taking directions from mom; up on my tiptoes, reaching for cans and jars.

My mom went often enough that Anthony knew her name. I went often enough that Anthony knew my name, too. But he probably would have even if I had only gone once. Because that’s just who he has been. Because his memory far surpasses mine.

Near the check-out line was a case of pastries. Passing it to get in line, I would — without fail — tug on my mom’s hand and point to the fresh batch of Morning Glory muffins. 

I’m not sure what the recipe for the muffins was. I know it had walnuts and grated carrots. Maybe raisins. Regardless, as a child, a trip to the grocery store meant a Morning Glory muffin. And the promise of a Morning Glory muffin meant I would usually agree to go to the grocery store with my mom.

Anthony probably interacted with hundreds of customers a day. But he always made time to talk to my mom and to me when I was there.

Until the age of 12 or so my parents only called me by my nickname, Marse. So naturally, Anthony knew me by my nickname as well. 

On the 26th of January 2021, I went to the grocery store where Anthony worked for the first time in probably nine years. I had my earbuds in, on a mission to collect some items for dinner. A black disposable mask covered over half of my face (a face which had also changed at least somewhat since 2012). 

I passed the Morning Glory muffins and reminisced on times past. 

I hurried down the aisles, better able to reach the cans and jars than the last time I had faced those shelves. 

The first time I passed him, I barely slowed down. He was masked, per company policy and pandemic protocols. My quick pace prevented me from observing his slight falter, his change in facial expression (which was, unfortunately, only vaguely discernible behind the mask). 

The meat counter smelled of raw chicken, and I grimaced as I accepted the taped brown package from the worker, not having been so close to such a quantity of meat since years before when I still ate it.

I grabbed a carton of almond milk and turned back towards the front of the store.

The second time I passed him, he stopped. Instinctively, I stopped too. He waved. Then he spoke. The music blared in my ears and I fumbled to take my earbud out. It was Anthony. But I didn’t know it yet.

He recognized me immediately. I had missed the attempt, but he had tried to get my attention the first time we had passed. In spite of my mask. In spite of the fact that I hadn’t seen him in at least nine years. In spite of the many and varied reasons he should have forgotten my face long ago. He recognized me.

To him, I was still “Marse.” No matter that my parents only use the nickname on rare occasions these days. To him, I was Marse when I was 12 and I was Marse still. And the moment he called me that, I knew exactly who he was. Without a doubt in my mind. Anthony.

We chatted. I forgot the last item on the mental list I had made. He recalled details about my family members that he had been told almost 10 years ago. Things he had no earthly reason to remember. Except that he wanted to. Except that he cared. Except that he had considered my mom a friend.

I told him that I was now in college, no longer the 8-, 10- or 12-year-old trailing my mom as she planned the week’s dinner menu. No longer the kid at the pastry cabinet reaching for a Morning Glory muffin. 

Our visit reawakened memories for me. It reinforced the recent notions that I was entertaining about grace and its interplay with human relationality. The idea that living gracefully is living for others, showing interest and affection without ulterior motives. 

My mom’s friendship meant something to him. It made our names stick in his head far longer than they reasonably should have. I suppose you never know when you might be making an impression on someone. Sometimes it’s when you’re eight and hanging onto your mom’s leg as she chats with the grocery store clerks. But I suppose that’s why they say kindness is always the best policy. Because it makes an impression that lasts.

The smile he wore as consistently as his uniform spoke of his content. Something you wished was contagious the moment his face lit up. And it always did when he saw us, my mom and me. And it really was in a way — contagious, that is. 

“Sharing the secrets to happiness will also make you happier, because doing so is an act of love,” wrote American musician Arthur Brooks. “And as we have all learned, love is generative: The more you give it, the more of it you get.”

It’s the little gestures that speak of happiness shared. The Southern tendency to wave in passing, no matter who you pass. My dad’s light-hearted greetings to strangers — “Howdy,” with a Southern twinge. Phone calls and text messages to friends miles away. “How are you’s” as expressions of a desire for interaction. Human relationality is laudable when it operates this way. When it accomplishes these small acts of kindness, or engages with these small gestures which mean much more than one would expect if considered in isolation.

And Anthony was — and still is — a master of the small gestures, the ones that speak of shared happiness. With his smile, his clear willingness to help, his desire to remember you and show that he does. Anthony epitomized my preoccupation with living gracefully, for others; on that winter afternoon in the grocery store, he shared some of the secrets with me. Take the earbuds out and engage. Show others you care, even if they give you no earthly reason to do so.

My grocery store treat these days is usually coffee because apparently with age comes caffeine dependency. And sometimes a muffin for old times’ sake.