by Julianne Palumbo
There’s a small café on Rue Sherbrook Ouest in the heart of downtown Montreal. You’ll know it by its glass storefront and the small window sign that whispers its name. Inside you’ll find my youngest son from afternoon to evening, winged by a plate of pasta, a basket of bread, and a bowl of soup. He’ll be doing homework and sipping coffee. But here’s what you won’t see: somewhere in the back kitchen, likely standing over the stove, is a woman who shares my secret.
It’s a secret I’ve been tending for a while—stirring it in those early morning hours when I wake in a panic over whether our children will face global starvation or nuclear war. It’s the idea that motherhood can change the world. I’ve suspected its truth because of all the children I have loved. Not just mine, but children of other mothers, children who have wandered into my lane and who have needed help steering their lives back to center. I have come to believe that I can and must have a positive effect on the lives of other people’s children, just as others can help to mother mine.
But, nothing has proved my theory more fully than when my youngest child left for college this fall. It was difficult for him to leave home—to go to a foreign country his very first time on his own and to survive there with food allergies that make it impossible for him to eat anything not homemade.
There have since been days when he phoned me so sick, I’ve wiped the sting of his tears from my eyes. I’ve had to talk his spine straight, his eyes to seeing the good in being where he is and to seeking a reason to stay there another day. And, when the cadence of his most genuine “But, Mom, I miss you” sings deeply to the cathedral of my longing, I am lost. But I know he is blessed to be where he is, and I’m grateful that this restaurant owner has been so kind to him and has made it possible for him to eat without getting ill.
He tells me about the robust flavor of the minestrone soup he eats at his restaurant and how he recently noticed that the bowl gets a little larger each time he orders it. He tells me how the restaurant owner sometimes sits with him when he is studying, bringing him extra bread. How she promised to pray for him as he took his first college exam and then remembered the next day to ask him how it went. Gratitude for this stranger swells inside me like the bellows of a Sunday choir; just as knowing he is being mothered there softens the ache of having a child so far away.
When we visited him last week, he took us to his little café. I was excited to feel the space where he spends so much time. But, even more, I hoped to meet the woman who provides him refuge.
The night was lovely, cool, and still. We left our little French hotel with the bay windows that absorb the sky and the petite chandelier and walked up the street toward the restaurant. Once inside, we took a table by the window. My stomach bubbled with the thrill of being together, if only a segment of our family and if only for a short time.
“That’s my table,” my son said, pointing to a booth in the corner.
The food was delicious, but I wasn’t so focused on the meal. The whole time I sat there, I relished watching my son, tried to tuck his changing features and the deepening of his voice into the scrapbook of my yearning. The whisker sprouts around his chin. The reaching shoulders. The resolute glint in his eye. I have missed them all.
And, as we ate, I couldn’t help thinking—Will she come over? Does she see us sitting here with this boy who “lives” in her restaurant. Will she want to meet me as much as I want to meet her? We lingered over tea and my son’s favorite cappuccino. Still no sign of her. My husband ordered a pizza, and we lingered more.
When finally we got up to leave, a quiet woman met us at the door. Pushing it open for us, she held out a package for my son to take home. “Chocolate cheesecake on the house,” she said humbly. More gifts in our direction. My son took the package and thanked her, promising to see her the next day.
Walking through the door, he whispered to me, “that’s the owner Mom,” welling a tsunami inside my chest. I turned to her and spilled the words “Thank you for taking care of my son.” And then I sputtered. My words felt like breadcrumbs. It would take more to make her understand just how much it has mattered.
In these autumn days of my mothering as my home empties itself into the hurting world, I take shelter in finding moments to mother another’s child. This is what binds us as mothers—the giving and receiving of these small gifts. We cannot be like rivers that meet but do not mix. There must be a silent thread that connects all mothers around the world, ties our hands to fill the empty mouths of starving children, our feet to walk them to safety, our lips to rooster their causes. It’s a secret we understand so deeply; we don’t even need to speak of it.
A child is a child, whether ours or someone else’s. A child is a place keeper of our world’s future. They are all important. Let me add my lavender touch to lighten the burden of a child’s upbringing. Let another mother blanket my child’s chill with the warmth of her cooking. If we mother this way, won’t the children see that we are all connected?
I wonder about the world if all mothers took care of each other’s children. Could war even survive? What man would fight against his other mother’s child, his wife’s other children, his son’s other mother? How much would every mother love another who has shown love to her child?
Let us mothers sort it out. Let us sort it out through motherhood.
Image: 15 by srasteria via Flickr.