The Kindness of Strangers

Earlier this month, when the boys were up in Canada and I had some quiet one-on-one time with Jo Jo, I took her for what she’d requesting for weeks: a man-i-cure. It is one of my little Jewish Princess’ favorite activities. She got hooked on them last year thanks to her BFF Lily, and she relishes the whole spa experience: picking out her pink (of course) polish, getting her hands rubbed, the lotion, the hot towels. The ultimate cherry on her spa sundae is getting to watch Yo Gabba Gabba on my phone while she gets her nails painted, to distract her so she doesn’t jerk her hand and smear the polish (it usually happens once or twice anyway during the process, much to the chagrin of the manicurist; let’s just say Mommy usually tips well).

She’s also a creature of habit, with a set routine and a set place: the little nail salon on Black Rock Turnpike next to the liquor store, where the staff wear aprons decorated with smiling pink cats and a Cheers-like atmosphere where everyone knows Jo Jo’s name.

So I probably should have known better when I took her to a different salon, figuring we could swing by the Trader Joe’s next door and pick up a few things before heading home and then to the pool. I was thinking about saving time and not about the consequences of altering Jo Jo’s routine. It turns out she was not happy about going into a new place, although she perked up when she got to pick out her polish—this time, a shimmering pink overlaced with sparkles—and got to soak her fingers in lavender scented water infused with hot stones.

But then, when the manicurist started filing her nails, she started squawking, loudly. I’d noticed women looking at her when we came in—not cruelly, but more out of curiosity, as kids aren’t often in this salon—and as the stares continued, I began to cringe. I tried to distract her with cartoons on my phone, and she’d watch for a bit, then let out a blood curdling yelp.

I had no choice but to give her the one more screech and you’re out warning. She was quiet for a while, and then did it again, yanking away her hand and smearing the polish the manicurist had so painstakingly put on.

“This is it,” I said wearily as I stood up and tried to pry her off her chair. “Jo Jo, we’re leaving.”

“You are not!” a voice said indignantly, and I turned behind me to see a brunette woman with horn rimmed glasses shaking her head. “She should stay and finish her manicure. I don’t mind one bit if she makes some noise.”

A panoply of voices filled the crowded room, murmuring agreement that she should stay. “I have three grandchildren—I’m used to it,” one elderly woman said to me reassuringly. “I’m having a bad day; I was thinking maybe I could yell right along with her,” someone else said.

I stared at all the women, stunned. I had just assumed that the glances were all of the she-doesn’t-belong-here-category and take-your-disabled-daughter out of the store category. I’d become so sensitive to leaving at the first sign that Jo Jo was becoming disruptive, after an ugly episode at an Alvin Ailey matinee performance last year. But it was the exact opposite. I was surrounded by a group of women who thought it was awesome that she was here.

As the manicurist tried again to paint Jo Jo’s nails, and as my daughter yelped, I watched as two women came over to her and, speaking softly and stroking her hair, coaxed her to sit quietly and not move her fingers over the dryer.

Ten minutes later, Jo Jo was done and I was a mess, putting on sunglasses to hide my tears. But when I asked for the bill and the owner of the salon told me it had been taken care of, I full on lost it. I was bawling and choking out thank yous to everyone in the store, who were now all looking at me as if I were the random crazy homeless woman who had walked in mumbling to herself.

Jo Jo, as always, stole the show. “Thank you! Goodbye!” she proclaimed, flashing her now perfect pink nails to applause as we exited onto the street.

Next door, I sniffled my way through squeezing avocados and picking out just-ripe peaches while trying to process what had happened. Over the last few months, I’d gone into total vigilante mode, trying to police Jo Jo’s behavior in an effort to avoid any more ugliness towards her. It had seemed so often that adults—whether kicking her out of a matinee performance or refusing to allow her into their summer camps—were making clear that for her to be accepted anywhere, she had to perform within typical perimeters. That her disability was okay as long as it was kept in a semi-invisible box, completely divorced from any undesirable behaviors.

But now a roomful of women had shown me that that didn’t always have to be the case, that some people were fine with her just how she was.

It felt freeing, like I’d just been able to throw off the chains of ableism that I had unfortunately been using to hold her down.

As we walked out of Trader Joe’s I saw one of the women from the store. “Thank you again for being so understanding,” I said.

She beamed at me. “Jo Jo is awesome,” she said simply.

I choked up once more and she reached over and encircled both me and Jo Jo in her arms so we were smooshed into one giant kumbaya hug. “You’re a great mom,” she said. “Keep it up.”

“I struggle sometimes,” I confessed to her (all the time thinking how weird it was to be engaging in a group hug and baring my soul in the Trader Joe’s shopping lot). “I want so badly to make sure Jo Jo has all the typical experiences other little girls have at her age, but then I worry if she’s not perfectly behaved and she’s disruptive.”

“Don’t,” she said. “It’s good for her, and it’s good for us adults too. Some of us could use a giant lesson in what it means to be tolerant.”

And with one final wave she walked away, leaving Jo Jo and I with our beautifully buffed nails and the realization that she was completely right.