Paying it forward, one burger at a time

It's not as if my teenage son needs more reason to be embarrassed of me, but at lunch recently, I know he wanted the earth to swallow him alive, right there at the cash register.

I had been working at home that day as a mom. A mom whose kids were about to go back to school after a summer that had started the day before, in fact, had barely even happened. As such, I was online all morning filling out forms, ordering supplies, synching calendars, buying books, etc.

On this particular day, my daughter had two sweet girls to occupy her, and my boys were involved in their own things, so I sat at the computer typing in my credit card digits resignedly and repeatedly, until I was finally reminded that in addition to clothes, kids also need lunch.

Too distracted to think about preparing something, I engaged in a thoughtless luxury: I piled everyone into the car and we went out for hamburgers. After we ordered our meals, all six of us, I reached into my purse to pay. I scrambled through all of my receipts, glasses, etc., to find my wallet, which of course I now clearly envisioned by my computer at home.

I looked at the teenager behind the counter and said, "Oh no! I don't have my wallet!" To which she replied, "No problem, I'll cancel your order." Then I heard a voice over my right shoulder.

"And I'd like to pay for this woman's lunch as well."

I turned to see a man about my age handing over his charge card. Despite my protests, he said, "I like to do one good thing a day. This will be today's thing. Please allow me."

And with stuttering and stammering and arms covered in goosebumps, I accepted. The children and I sat down and talked about the man, the kindness he showed us. My sons were totally embarrassed, of course, but I think eventually the message came through.

I believe this with my whole self: that stranger may well have changed our lives with his gesture. Not by providing a meal for us, which we so blithely order and buy routinely, but because he showed us that kindness and selflessness exist and are actually practiced. In a world gone mad with violence and hatred, one man helped me without thought of ever receiving credit or repayment.

When I accepted his generous offer, I told him I'd pay his kindness forward. And so despite our crazy end-of-summer schedule, and the fact that I was driving without my license (note to Hinsdale PD - will never happen again, I promise, and remember, this is a column about kindness), we stopped at the Hinsdale Food Pantry on the way home. We wrote a check for those truly hungry, in honor of our hamburger benefactor. To pay it forward.

And now with the hope that you will help me honor him, and kindness in general, by paying it forward too, in your own ways, in your own lives, in your own hearts.

- Kelly Abate Kallas of Hinsdale is a guest columnist. This piece was first published Aug. 21, 2014.