I felt a squeeze on my arm as I approached the exit to Calgary’s largest department store. The woman holding my arm gently said to me, “Please come with me. I want to talk to you about the cards you have in your pocket.”
I immediately felt terrified. I sensed a feeling in the pit of my stomach that was very familiar. What wasn’t familiar was the gentleness of this woman’s voice. It’s almost as if she cared for me.
Walking arm in arm or at least that’s what it looked like, she escorted me to a back office. She asked me to sit down while she locked the door behind us. After taking her coat off she sat across from me and said, “Do you know why I stopped you before you left the store?”
Although I didn’t know the feeling of shame at the time, I did begin to feel it rise in my body. Quietly and surprisingly I said, “Yes ma’am, I do.”
“Stealing is a serious matter. Are you aware of this?” she asked. Nervously, gazing down at my tattered running shoes wishing I had used them to run away from her, I answered, “Lots of my brothers and sister steal, but yes I know it’s wrong.”
I still had my coat on and she asked if I would take the cards out of my pocket and put them on the desk. I remember watching my then 12-year-old hand shake.
“Why?” I heard her ask.
“They’re pretty.” I innocently answered.
“But you didn’t pay for them. Do you have the money to buy them?”
The only money I had was a dime, the bus fare home. “No ma’am, I do not.” with a quiver in my voice.
She asked for my home telephone number, stating that she wanted to call my parents to let them know I had been apprehended for stealing.
I quickly said we have no phone at home, but the telephone company would be there tomorrow to install one. Her eyes gazed up at me as she paused from filling out some paper work, “It’s Sunday tomorrow and the phone company doesn’t work on Sunday.” she countered.
I think I stopped breathing. I fell silent. I felt the heat of that small office overwhelm me. I knew she knew I was lying.
With her eyes fixed on me she stated, “You must be so scared.” Terrified was really how I felt, but her gentleness and my sense that she cared about me was reassuring.
“Do you want to give me your home number?” she gently asked. Without hesitating and feeling tears begin to stream down my face I said, “Yes.”
I watched her pick up the phone, dial the number I gave her, and from there all I could discern as she spoke to my Mom was a muffled noise. There was no way I wanted to hear what she was telling my Mom.
I watched as she placed the phone onto its cradle. The call was done. “You can go now.” were the words out of her mouth. I felt no relief.
Her closing comments to me were, “Please don’t let me see you in the store anymore and I hope you’ve learned a lesson today.” Now I really wanted my tattered running shoes to work their magic.
I deposited my last dime as I climbed aboard the #9 bus home. I was sure everyone knew I was a thief, shame were unbearable. My secret was now out.
I remember walking through the back door and into the kitchen. My big sister was sitting at the table talking to Mom. She fell silent as she looked at me. My Mom never said a word to me, not that day or any day of my life about stealing that deck of cards.
My days as a thief didn’t end on that Saturday in the late 1960’s. Mom didn’t have the skills to counsel me. As long as my siblings stole, it was ok for me to be a thief.
After unraveling why I stole and committing to no longer being a thief, with the support of some counselling work, I discovered it was based on my need to be like my family.
As long as I stole, I was loved. And although Mom said nothing about my stealing, when I arrived home on that day, what I did hear was, “I love you for being like my other kids.” .