It happened on a Metra train

A few weeks ago, I had an appointment in the city and decided to take my preschool-aged daughter along for a girls' day out.

We had a wonderful day planned, and we dressed for the occasion, in dresses and fancy shoes. We decided to take the train to make the day even more special. I had packed snacks and books and stickers, as I know all too well that a special day can go south if your young date becomes hungry or bored. The train was a bit full, so we couldn't sit on top as we'd hoped, but were happy as we settled in for our adventure.

As I said, the train was crowded, the commuters dourly looking straight ahead or at their cell phones or newspapers. There were women and men of all ages and ethnicities in our car, but the overall feeling was one of sameness and monotony. But amidst so many suburban workers heading to the city, one woman was clearly different.

The woman was seated with her young daughter and several over-stuffed suitcases. She spoke loudly on her cell phone, bemoaning the family member who had failed to pick her up to drive her to the city.

Her language was colorful; she was angry. Her daughter squirmed and cried out of boredom or lack of attention.

The commuters around her became more dour, more insulated in their personal space, and purposely ignored the loud woman, or rarely cast dirty looks her way. The train conductor approached the woman and threatened her, which made her more volatile.

My daughter was fascinated and a bit afraid of the woman and her daughter. The commotion was unsettling. We sank a bit deeper in our seats. I protectively wrapped my arm around my little girl, and we read our book. When my daughter asked for a snack, I opened a package of cookies. Then, I asked my daughter if she'd like to offer a cookie to the daughter of the disruptive woman.

Without a second thought, my daughter reached for the cookie and approached the woman and her daughter. She extended her arm, cookie in hand, and asked the little girl if she'd like it.

The contrast could not have been more dramatic. My little girl in her fancy dress for a special day with her mama, the other girl shabbily clothed and largely ignored despite her cries. The other mother looked at me and quietly asked her child if she'd like a cookie, and the girl accepted.

The train car became ... peaceful.

The mom stopped talking and visibly relaxed. The little girl ate her cookie quietly. The commuters were stunned out of their glum isolation. They looked at my sweet daughter, and at me, and smiled. Then they actually looked at the loud woman and her daughter. And smiled. She was no longer the villain. Instead she could be seen for what she was: an unfortunate woman in a difficult situation, struggling with sad circumstances.

I believe life-changing events can be both grand and small. On that short train ride, I learned about the power of kindness. It can be contagious, it can permeate, it can create a movement every bit as powerful as hatred and indifference.

When the train reached Union Station, I offered to help the woman with her bags and she gratefully accepted. Before I could help, though, a businessman offered to escort the woman and her daughter off the train and grabbed the large suitcases. I simply held my own daughter's hand and we walked off the train into our special day.

- Kelly Abate of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. This column first was published Nov. 6, 2008.