The following story details my encounter with Mother Theresa in India when I was a teenager. This experience continues to inspire my passion for helping parents and children.
Meeting Mother Theresa, the Ultimate Mother
I loved the weather, the fauna, family but the food and customs were very different from my Minnesota home town. I missed the hamburgers, French fries, macaroni and cheese and pizza – oh, how I missed the pizza. The food in India was spiced with curry, turmeric, cardamom, cumin and a perfume-scented spice which was put in the rice pudding. This was not on the menu of a typical American teenager in the 1970s.
“We’re gonna have pizza? You got to be kidding!” I said as I jumped up and down, hanging on to the top of my lungi, so that I didn’t lose it and expose my behind.
“We have planned to go for lunch at a restaurant and Baba has arranged for the chef to make you some pizza before we go on the safari ride,” Mom said, knowing that this would give her a lot of ammunition for future good behavior from her independent and not-so-courteous 19-year old daughter.
“I can’t wait. Ty and Ronny will be so jealous. When are we going?”
“Tomorrow,” Mom said, laughing as she watched me dance in circles.
I headed for our hut, knowing that the next day would be special. Very special.
The sun was rising while we drank our Indian tea and ate the duck-egg omelets and naan. My mom, Izzy, Baba’s interpreter, Savathri, and I sat in the back seat of the aged Mercedes, while our host, Baba sat in the front seat with the chauffeur. We had a long drive ahead of us. I am not sure where the car came from, since I didn’t see any cars at Prasanth. The only wheeled transportation available was an open, old jeep referred to as the “taxi” that came from the small town of Chevrutaur. It didn’t matter, we were on our way for pizza and a safari, and I was elated.
Along the way we passed screeching monkeys, open carts with sugar cane juice and cows moseying along side the road. People stared as we drove by.
“We need to stop at the next town,” Mom announced.
“The car stopped at a four-room, thatched hut, surrounded by drainage ditches removing the excess water and sewage, a strong stench that smelled of urine and rotten eggs. The doors of the car opened, and we were shuffled into the small entryway of the building with the background noise of screaming babies drowning out our conversation. Baba and the driver went to refuel.
“Why are we here? When are we going to get pizza as you promised? I’m hungry.” I emphasized growing more impatient as the piercing baby cries seemed to enter the bottom of my spine, creep up my back and explode at my temples.
“I’m here to give a donation,” Mother said, giving me the evil eye to behave myself.
“Mom,” I whined, “can’t you do it later? Just leave some money and let’s go.” I gave an emphatic stomp to show my growing impatience, but it was ignored.
We went inside; cribs lined the walls and the center of the room. A narrow path paved the way between the rows of cribs that was wide enough for the nuns to get to each baby. There must have been 30 cribs in a 10 by 15-foot room. As I peaked around the corner, 25 little toddlers played with old cups and sticks on a dirt floor in the next room. Some disabled. Most of them were girls. Every so often, in between the screams, I would hear a bell jingle outside. I figured it was a bicycle with a warning bell, which seemed to be the usual transportation for local workers.
The curtain to the front waiting room opened and a small, frail woman in a blue-and- white cotton habit entered. The babies were crying as if they were in a competition to see who was the loudest. I heard a song that was weak and limited in pitch, due to an aged voice box. One by one, this four-foot-something, old woman picked up each baby and kissed her on the forehead while singing an undistinguishable lullaby. The crying stopped by the time she reached the last baby, the room was completely quiet. She was in the moment, she was one with those children. I still get goose bumps every time I think about this experience. The toddlers rushed to the door that was barricaded by pieces of wood tied together with palm grass. The toddlers who could walk were reaching for this woman as if she was their personal “mom.”
“Wow! Who is that person?” I whispered to Savathri as she watched Baba interact with the woman. She didn’t respond to me and went to Baba’s side to read his hands.
“Isabelle Thorson is from the United States. She has a sizable sum of money for the orphanage,” Baba signed to this woman as Savathri “read” his hands. Baba had an expression of a five-year-old child that had been given a brand new toy emphasized by his expressive grunts and sighs that gave more emotion for his interpreter. This excessive energy and attention getting technique competed with his robust tummy and formal robes.
The preoccupied old woman pointed to a woven basket in the corner of the room for my humble and generous mother to place the money.
“She wants me to leave this many rupees in this communal basket?” Mother asked in disbelief.
The amount was over $500, equivalent of a worker’s ten-year salary.
The frail but diligent old woman again pointed with more emphasis at the straw basket, wanting to make the most of her time with the children. Baba gave a “more or less” side-to-side shaking of his hand to show that it was okay to place the rupees in the small, open, grass-woven bowl.
We started to leave the simple but clean hut, and again I asked who that woman was.
“Mother Theresa,” my reverent mother responded. “She takes care of these orphans and the lepers in the community.”
I felt humbled. I was given a new point of reality that changed my life.
As we were leaving, again I heard the bell. I looked in the direction of the sound. A woman with a sari covering her head was hurriedly placing a newborn baby in a larger, spiral-woven basket on the front porch next to the doorway of the orphanage. As the woman looked back for one final glance at the baby, she was wiping the tears from her face.
And what about the pizza I was promised? I savored every bite with humbleness and gratitude.
– Kathy Gruhn, MA CCC-SLP, author of My Baby Compass series