We’re landing, we’re landing, repeated our youngest, J, his eyes lit round with excited relief, his little lungs adjusting to receive the stranger, brisker air of our just arrived destination: the South Island of New Zealand.
In fact, our boy was incorrect, we’d landed several hours ago, in a rather noisy, choppy descent to earth, which made J cling to his dad’s arm like a twig to a tree trunk, looking equal parts adorable and entirely vulnerable sunk in the depths of his full-size plane seat. But on another level, the level of metaphor (my own particular comfortable flight mode), he was exactly right. We were still in the process of pulling out the wheels for touchdown. First on a new physical patch of earth, and second on an entirely new social and emotional landscape.
There’s something about being travellers, even on a relatively short trip, that makes you notice more acutely your lack of groundedness. We were —for the time being— without our home. And yet, within the next twenty-four hours, we were to find new versions of home, new orientation-points, though not in the places, forms, or portions we might have expected.
I first encountered her after I raced between the van (kindly supplied for us by the church we were visiting) and the automated doors of McDonalds, sliding open for me like the arms of old, familiar friends. The chill outside, at around 5 degrees celsius, was not a temperature I was yet comfortable with. And even with my big coat, beanie and boots, I was glad for the rush of warm, artificial air that greeted me along with the fluorescent lights and oh so familiar signature smell of this fast-food paradise.
Although the interior was just like Sydney, the pace was not. I waited at the McCafe counter for at least five minutes, impatiently shuffling from foot to foot, thinking of the kids in the back of the van, groggily emerging from a late afternoon nap, disoriented and requiring comfort. All I wanted was three apple juices, a semi-treat drink I knew would help settle the three as they crossed from unscheduled slumber to wakefulness. It was 6pm local time, but 4pm body time, and we were on our way to the motel for our first night in NZ.
Dr M sent me a message: Come quick, they are screaming for you! As any parent knows, another parent’s SOS is never to be taken lightly. And yet, why did no one else in the relatively quiet building seem aware of it, the buzz of the phone and throb of adrenaline I felt as I switched impatiently from foot to foot, uttering breathless hurry ups in my mind.
She appeared from the back kitchen, a small lady, the lines crisscrossing her face mapping her at at least sixty years of age. Not your usual profile of a Macca’s employee. But she wore the uniform, and her smile was kind, if not a little shy, as she asked me if I had been served. I told her no, and a bit too brusquely made my request. She seemed unaware of my harried tone, and took her time taking the juices from the fridge, and tapping the numbers into the register. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m not familiar with this machine.’ Her movements were awkward, and my mind went places I afterwards would feel ashamed for. Why is an ‘old’ lady working in McDonalds, especially when she doesn’t seem even able to do her job? I thought. But the drinks were finally in my hand and without looking back I rushed back out into the night chill.
The situation in the van was dire. Our eldest E, it seemed, was having some sort of daytime ‘ terror,’ a disoriented response on waking that resulted in panic and dissolved her face to floods of tears. A while ago she had been victim to regular night terrors, a condition that strands the sufferer between slumber and wake —-and results in a sort of crazed panic. But we’d never had it after a nap before. The boys too, catching the tense atmosphere, wailed along with her. The apple juices, after all that, were little aid. We needed something much, much stronger.
‘Let’s take them in for dinner,’ Dr M suggested. ‘The change in scene might snap her out of it.’
I’m not sure either of us truelly believed it, but we had to try. One by one we pulled the kids from car seats to ground, pushing arms unused to wearing more than one or two layers awkwardly into thick, puffy jackets, and forcing reluctant feet back into shoes.
We made it inside, but as I feared, it did little to help. Our girl just kept on hollering, loud and long and dramatic enough to give her a good chance at an Emmy, and enough for the time being to make the other inhabitants of the restaurant empire stare at us in a mixture of sympathy (fellow mums) and annoyance (too-cool teens). We thought the arrival of the happy meals might help, nothing like a small dose of parental bribery and plastic toys to alleviate the heavy mood. And maybe they would have fulfilled their dubious potential, except that E got the wrong toy. You know, parents, the one that didn’t quite meet up with the awkward collision of the advertising hype and the vision in her head.
Just when I was all out of ideas, floundering in a sea of parental guilt and misery, I found myself looking up. ‘How about I change that for you?’ The voice was gentle, a calm breeze in a flurry of movement. It belonged to none other than the lady from before, the small, older lady, the unlikely employee I had hastily written off as inefficient. In her hands were an array of plastic bags, or perhaps it is better to describe them as a bundle of child-desire. She walked calmly over to our wild girl and without invitation sat down beside her, right on the cold, neighbouring fixed to the spot fast food stool. ‘I’ve got some other things you might like,’ she suggested.
And suddenly McDonald’s was less of a generic, sugary, fat-frying watering hole, our last best chance, and more of a resting place to take a load off and recuperate. The hopeful point of a new beginning.
We stayed there for several hours in the end. That woman —whose plastic badge told us was called Jane – looked after us like we were royal guests. As she brought out pens and paper, ushered us to the nappy change station, and paused to chat with us over our very different lives, we became if not firm friends, warm acquaintances. ‘I used to be a preschool teacher,’ she said wistfully.
When we prepared to leave she came to bid us farewell for the continuation of our journey. ‘Thankyou,’ I said, looking down into her kind eyes. ‘You have no idea how helpful you have been.’
‘We were just so glad to have you,’ she said, holding out her arms wide, and smiling soft, as if the public building were her home and not her place of employment. I noticed then the small, subtle cross that hung close around her neck.
As we left once more, retreating back into the night, back onto the road that would unwind before us, I couldn’t help wondering: Could it be possible we had just met an angel in McDonalds?
And I thought something else too. We had, very clearly, just been the beneficiaries of an unusual display of grace in the form of hospitality. And yet, this act ticked off none of the traditional markers of this art. Personal home. Nuh uh. Cosy decor. No way. Lavish (or mildly nutritional food): highly debatable. However, even without all this, this woman-stranger, this employee of a multi-kazillion dollar empire, one cog in a giant churning machine, came towards us in a display of profound personal and particular welcome. A reception that could be defined as nothing less than hospitable. She may not have had all the perfect pieces with which to woo us, and yet she used what she had to treat us in the best way she could. Her actions were not necessary, in fact, if anything she stepped out and risked her own employment by going beyond the lines of her job description. I’m sure she must have been tired too, standing on those hard floors, dealing with all manner of people and moments. But she chose to love us, as we were, in that moment, strangers that stumbled unexpectedly into her particular patch of borrowed earth. She approached our messy chaos fearlessly, with heart and hands open.
That wasn’t the only such incident of provision granted for us on our recent trip. But it was one of the first. And it set a tone for the duration of our adventure. I wonder if I will always remember when Grace found us in the most unexpected of places, right there under the garish yellow glow of the Big M.