The woman and her daughter looked tired as they sat down at a table next to me at McDonald’s. They were quiet and it struck me that they seemed solemn. Had the woman been crying?
The girl and her mother were counting change. I had heard her ask an employee for some menu prices and how much sales tax would be. Then it dawned on me. They were counting their remaining change to see what they could afford to order.
I tried to strike up a friendly conversation, but they were guarded. The woman responded politely, but she didn’t feel much like being friendly to a stranger. I got up from my seat and walked over to their table.
“Are you a little short?” I asked quietly, not wanting anyone else to hear and risk embarrassing her. “I’d be happy to help if I can.”
She looked startled and then responded softly.
“Oh, I couldn’t accept anything,” she said. “I really appreciate it, but I just couldn’t take it. Thank you, though.”
I wished her luck and sat back down at the next table again. They were quiet as she kept looking at their money and the prices. A couple of minutes later, she got up and quietly moved to my table. She seemed embarrassed.
“Sir, I don’t know what to say,” she started. She had tears in her eyes and she was looking down at the table. “I do need help, but I was too proud to say so when you offered. I’m traveling with my girls and we’re out of money. They haven’t eaten all day. I don’t need anything for myself, but if I could just feed them…”
While her daughter went back to the car to get her two sisters, Deidre introduced herself. I could tell that she had been hit in the face very recently. She had cuts and bruising around her left eye.
The food they ordered cost only $12. Even though a stranger was paying, Deidre didn’t want them to get much. She seemed too proud to take advantage of anyone. She was willing to accept this humiliation only because she needed to feed her girls.
Over the next half hour, she told me her story. They had left a town in east Texas — not far from Shreveport, La., — earlier today. She had been with a man who moved them there for the last four years. He was the father of the younger two girls.
She said the man had always been cruel to her but that things had gotten worse. He was drinking more and he was scary and violent at times. He had promised to change, though. In fact, he hadn’t hit her for the last six months. She didn’t love him anymore, but she stayed with him because of their daughters.
But he got angry earlier today at one of the girls. He screamed at one of his daughters and made her cry. Deidre stepped in front of him to avoid him attacking the girl — and the man hit her again.
Something inside her snapped. She hit him back, which she had never done before. They fought and threw things at each other. The man angrily left the house a few minutes later. Deidre feared what might happen when he returned.
So Deidre packed her girls and whatever things they could grab into her car. She had a little bit of money for gas, but little more. She called her mom — in a little town east of Charlotte, N.C. — and told her she was driving home. Her mom didn’t ask what had happened, probably because she guessed the truth and had heard it before.
I just listened and didn’t offer any advice. She didn’t ask me what to do and I had absolutely nothing useful to offer. After she got over her initial reluctance to talk to me, though, she seemed grateful to have someone to tell. There were times she spoke quietly and directly to me, presumably because she was trying to hide details from her daughters.
Deidre didn’t fit whatever you might expect of a poor woman who had allowed herself to be abused for so long. She spoke well and told me she had graduated from college. She had planned to become a teacher until she got pregnant with her first child.
After Deidre and the girls finished eating, we went to a Walmart next door and bought them a little bit more food to take in the car. They’re only about six hours away from her mom’s home — Deidre’s childhood home — so they should be fine. We put some gas into her very old Honda Accord at a service station next door and they were ready to go.
The youngest of the girls — a 4-year-old blonde named Samantha — gave me a big hug as they were about to go. She asked me if I was coming with them. I told her that I wished I could. After the girls were in the car, Deidre thanked me and offered to send me the money when she could. I just told her to take care of herself and her girls instead.
As they were about to go — almost as an afterthought — Deidre asked if I would pray for them before they left.
“I haven’t been to church in a long time,” she said, “but I still have faith. I’m just kind of ashamed to talk to God myself right now.”
So I sat in the back seat with two of the girls while Deidre and Megan, the oldest daughter, sat in the front. We all held hands and I prayed aloud for them. Deidre cried softly as I prayed.
I got out and we said goodbye. Then they headed down the hundred yards or so back to I-20 east toward Atlanta.
Their brief time with me was over, but as they drove away, my heart was heavy — because Deidre and her beautiful little girls face much bigger challenges in the days ahead.
I pray that God will give Deidre the courage and strength to make the right decisions.