Health

Remembering Mother

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

By Michele Leight

The dirt lane that led to Mother House from Lower Circular Road back in those days is now paved over. Signs abound to guide the thousands who visit Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity headquarters in Calcutta today. Her simple tomb of white marble stands in the room in which she prayed with the sisters of her Order every morning. It is as unpretentious and simple as a room can be - like Mother herself, no matter who she was with.

Those seeking connection to an extraordinary human being - who has now become a household word - come from countries around the globe. Curious, sleepy young tourists with backpacks, the devout, those who believe they are walking in the footsteps of a saint, and those who knew her in the early days of her mission to help the poor, all trudge up the lane to pay Mother a visit, even though she is no longer with us - on earth.

If you ask anyone in Calcutta where the home of "Mother" is they will tell you. She is called "Ma" in Bengal, which means 'mother.' Cab drivers, rickshawallahs, cyclists, all beam as they claim "Ma" for their own. She has made Calcutta famous, she has brought many tourists, they love Mother. Her densely lined face looks out from framed photos in churches, doctors and dentist's waiting rooms, clubs, schools and private homes, and her image even pops up beside garish Bollywood posters pasted on city walls and railway stations. Mother would have liked this juxtapositions. She would have beamed to see herself featured beside a Bollywood Romeo and Juliet. Mother loved happiness and love in all its forms.

Mother Teresa is a beloved icon in Calcutta, where she began her now famous order, The Missionaries of Charity. The Oxford Bookstore on Park Street has a table and several shelves devoted to the Nobel Peace Prize winner - now canonized a saint - whose name is synonomous with Calcutta, where she first began her mission. Mother Teresa used to teach Moral Science at my childhood convent school. One day she decided there was much more to be done than teach religious studies and she headed off alone into the bustees and slums of Calcutta. The rest, as they say, is history. When she died, she was laid in state at St. Thomas' Church, which is attached to the Loreto Convent at which she taught. It was my school till I left India to study in England. My friends and I used escape the heat of mid-day and sit in the empty church during our lunch hour, chatting quietly, and no one told us to leave. At that hour it was almost empty, except for a few devout souls who prayed with eyes closed, lips moving silently.

Now, all the iconic imagery of Mother takes some getting used to.When I was a young child Mother Teresa was not yet world famous, and my mother had a picture of her on her bedside table - right by her favorite books by the Brontes and Jane Austen - and every year we went to be blessed by Mother. That was the only image I saw of Mother in my earliest years, besides the person herself.

My mother referred to her simply as "Mother" and I heard her in telephone conversations with Mother numerous times a week, discussing venues for future benefits, the leper colony in Asansol, the Pope's visit, movie premiers, children's Christmas parties, "Nirmal Hriday" in Kalighat, Prem Dan, and most of all Shishu Bhavan, Mother's orphanage on Lower Circular Road.

I was 7 years old the first time I spent more than a few minutes with Mother. My mother decided it was time for me to accompany her on a lengthier visit. At last I was grown up enough I remember thinking. I did not know exactly what my mother did for all the hours she went away with Mother in the car. All I knew was that she was very important in my mother's life.

The dirt lane to Mother House was quiet except for the twittering of sparrows and the incessant cawing of crows that is so much a part of the audio backdrop of India. I held my mother's hand as we walked and I noticed how happy she seemed. It was peaceful in the lane after the cacophony of the congested road and the teeming crush of humanity. A high wall protected Mother House and the sign to the left of the simple wooden doorway said " IN." Above the "IN/OUT" sign was a large bell, a lot like our school bell, which my mother rang as though she had done it many times before.When Mother was not in residence the sign said "OUT" my mother explained. That made perfect sense to a child.

A young postulant in full white - without the distinctive blue border of the ordained sister's of Mother's Order - opened the door, smiling in recognition of my mother. She bowed her head down towards folded hands in a gracious 'namaste," the Indian gesture of welcome, which my mother returned. "I will call Mother" she said, and disappeared through a curtained doorway. My mother and I sat on the bench and watched the birds darting about. I was alittle nervous, but my mother was totally at peace. I noticed how sparse and clean the courtyard was. The only decorations were a palm tree and a few young plants being nurtured to growth in terracotta pots.

"I must talk to Mother about the children's Christmas party," said mum, "and you can help with it if you like." This was a subtle reminder on the part of my mother to be well behaved and somewhat inconspicuous. I had a sense that this was a very important event in my life, and my palms were clammy.

Mother appeared through the curtains and took both my mother's hands in hers. I held back, being naturally shy, but Mother soon had me smiling and laughing as we discussed the antics of the sparrows.She was the first adult person who did not mention my shyness, understanding intuitively that it only made things worse and my face redder. My mother produced the bulging 'children's party' file and they sat together while I immersed myself in observing the sparrows in the courtyard. The acoustics in the walled courtyard magnified their ecstatic twittering and tweeting. They were such little things and they made such a din I remember thinking.Tracking the sparrows' bouncing around on matchstick legs with my eyes made me dizzy.

"The children should be given the food in boxes" said Mother "because they will not eat everything at once. They do not eat cakes and sweets everyday. Please make sure there is fruit....." Mother was as practical as she was humorous and kind. "The children will take the food from the party to share with those who could not attend back at home."

My mother jotted down all Mother's comments and preferences on the yellow legal pad from my father's office. My mother fundraised for Mother's support charity, a laypersons "Co-Worker" group for Mother's Mission in Calcutta. There were so many events all year round she was constantly busy on the phone - or "pestering someone in the office" said my father plaintively. His office was on all her lists.

Once a week there were meetings at various "co-workers" houses, including our own, and Mother often came to them, pausing to pray at the beginning of each session. The atmosphere was happy and informal, and Mother rarely stayed for long as there was so much for her to do elsewhere. The ladies chatted as they cut small white pills into halves and quarters with razor blades, and placed them in paper bags. I learned that the pills were given to lepers to make them better. No one minded if a young person strolled in to the group out of curiosity, watching as they sewed sequins on felt Christmas stockings or stencilled glittering reindeer on large sheets of construction paper. Before long I was roped in to help. The ladies had a good gossip and coffee as well - but not when Mother was there - and verdicts were sought on the latest hairstyles. Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren's "do's" were winners. I learned from my mother and her friends that helping others was important - no matter how small the task or donation. I had no idea at that time what Mother would mean to the world one day. But I knew for certain she was really special.

Mother Teresa and child

Mother Teresa and child

The children's Christmas Party was an annual event and everyone loved being involved in it. Several hundred of Mother's orphans from different homes were bussed in from the suburbs, joining the children from Shishu Bhavan, and the venue was usually one of the schools with large enough grounds to handle the energetic and eager youngsters, the high-octane games and the sit down picnic of individually boxed goodies - Mother's brilliant idea - donated by local restaurants, corporations and private individuals. As the children were given their boxes filled with treats, I saw them take a bit or two of a luscious pink petit four with marzipan roses, smile, and close the lid of the box. Child after child did the same thing. My mother explained that I must not think they did not like the food (I did). They loved the treats, she said - they were probably going to take them home to those who could not attend the party.

Women like my mother solicited all their husbands business associates and friends who headed big companies for donations for Mother's benefits and events like the Children's Party - as determined as though they were on an Everest expedition. Woe betide the man who dared refuse these ladies! I helped at the children's party by handing out boxes of food and gifts, spoons for the egg-and-spoon-race, sacks for the sack race and so on. Nothing terribly important but I loved being near the joy of those children. Their joy was absolute and filled with gratitude. It was the happiest of the occassions I associated with Mother. I can still hear their shrieks of delight as they ran around the grounds, dressed in their best clothes, which had been donated from countries around the world. As dusk fell, the children boarded the buses to return to their orphanages and homes in the suburbs. Each one carried their box of food like treasure, to share with the folks who could not attend the party. Just like Mother said.

Memories of the children in Mother's orphanage, 'Shishu Bhavan,' are lodged permanently in my heart and will never be erased. Nor will the the gentleness, experience and humor of the nuns who cared for them. I remember a makeshift clinic in the courtyard behind the large wooden gateway, and Mother's nuns in white saris with blue borders stirring the curries, dhals and bhajis in huge dekchis balanced on chulas for the mid-day meal and the soup kitchen. Children darted about happily - everywhere. They were clean, sweet and spunky and pulled at the petticoat under my dress, asking me what it was. Indian petticoats went all the way to the ground. My short, lace-edged one was a curiosity. When I had a Beatles haircut they thought I was a boy in a dress - but I explained about the Beatles. "O-kay!" they said sweetly, giggling. They definitely thought my haircut was wierd.

Upstairs in the quiet, darkened corridor of 'Shishu' were the row of "Preemies" or premature babies in incubators. I had never seen beings that tiny before; miniature human beings with closed eyes and tightly closed fists the size of a grape. They were usually fast asleep with tubes attached to them, tiny chests inhaling and exhaling precious air. The incubators protected their fragile body temperature and endangered lives. Some were so small they could fit in the palm of a man's hand: perfectly formed life at its tiniest. Some lived and some died.

"Hold the baby and love the baby," said a busy nun, when I asked how I could help. The baby in my arms was not a 'preemie', but a gurgling six month old, with enormous black eyes. "Mother says the baby feels the love," she said smiling, and disappeared. So there I was, not terribly old myself, holding and loving a baby I did not know. It felt good. From that moment onwards, I looked forward to holding and loving all babies, although my own son has been the most loved and held.

My mother told me that many of the "preemies" were left at the gates of Shishu Bhavan in the dead of night in boxes, or wrapped in rags or newspaper. Their desperate, poverty-stricken mothers knew that the nuns would save them and care for them when they knew they could not. Now I understood why holding and loving babies was important. Their own mothers could not be there to do it.

'Johnny Walker,' my favorite child at the orphange, had come to Shishu Bhavan that way. He was named after the whiskey crate in which his mother had placed him before she abandoned him at the gates of Mother's orphanage. He was disabled and paralyzed from the waist down, and shuffled about without a wheelchair. He was mentally retarded as well but he was not separated from the other children and everyone loved his sunny personality. Mother did not believe in separating the mentally retarded children from the others.

Boy did Johnny Walker sing! He sang whenever he felt like it, belting out songs of his own making, or Hindi movie tunes and familiar nurserty rhymes. He sang louder when he was not supposed to, making everyone laugh; he sang when there were important visitors, and he sang when he was given his dish of food. He had a beautiful voice. He sang like he felt loved.

When Johnny had fits - he had some other central nervous system problem - he was gently soothed by one of the nuns till his tremors subsided. It saddened me to see him that way, but the nuns assured me that he was okay, that God was watching over him. That was when I understood how important God was, that he could do something like that for Johnny so he did not know his own suffering. I do not recall ever seeing him sad - and yet there were so many things that Johnny could have been sad about. I can still hear his high notes ricocheting off the courtyard walls of the orphanage. As a child I thought God sang to everyone through Johnny. Children are straightforward. They have imagination and faith.

I never went to Nirmal Hriday in Kalighat, Mother's home for the dying. My mother never took me there. She went often with Mother or on her own. She told me that Mother believed very strongly that those who were dying and had been abandoned needed to feel loved. Most of all Mother felt they needed to die in dignity.

Mother and her nuns offered the dying their favorite meal at Nirmal Hriday before they died - whatever their heart desired. Some asked for grapes, many asked for sondesh, a special Indian sweet. One of the most popular requests was for fish curry, a favorite of Bengalis, often associated with happy, auspicous family events like the birth of a baby or a wedding.

Mother Teresa spoke of one woman repeatedly at gatherings and meetings through the years, even after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She described how she found her dying, abandoned in the gutters of a slum, infected with lice, TB and maggots. When she was cleaning and changing the dying woman back at Nirmal Hriday - personally removing the maggots lodged in her flesh - she said the woman held her hand and said over and over again: "My family did this to me, they put me out of the house to die alone." The woman did not have long to live, but Mother personally attended to her.

It was the word "alone" that Mother zeroed in on when she spoke of this woman. She always emphasized "alone" and "unloved" so there was no mistaking their significance."Make sure you look first to your own families to see that they are cared for and loved. Take care of your own, and there will be no poverty," Mother's said often. She always simplified life down to the essentials. Her speeches were never long or complicated and she had a delicious sense of humor.

Mother said she thought the elderly in the East were more fortunate than their counterparts in the West. She never understood putting parents in an "old people's home" or anything like that. It was a completely alien concept.

She worried about the homeless in a wealthy country like America, where she opened a home in the Bronx. She said the homeless in nations like Britain and America were more isolated and alone - and unloved - than the poor in India, who had so much company. Whenever I see a homeless person in New York, surrounded by well-groomed people in fine clothes passing them by in a hurry, I think of Mother's comment about their isolation. In India, wherever you look, there are poor people gravitating towards each other with a common bond - survival. Most homeless in the United States walk utterly alone - unloved.

Mother had such love and commitment for the marginalized and the stigmatized. Her relentless mission to improve the lot of lepers in India was life-long and meant a great deal to her. If she were alive now, I have no doubt based on what I knew of Mother that she would be championing people living with the stigma of HIV/AIDS in India and around the world; she would be advocating to end the horror of unmedicated full-blown AIDS by giving those who cannot afford them the anti-retroviral medications free. The medications exist, but not for the poor. It is such a violation of human dignity - and fundamental human rights.

Dignity for the outcast, the forgotten and abandoned was vitally important to Mother, but this was not easy to communicate when there was so much poverty in India . Mother did not beleive in "untouchability." For her, how people treated others was a test of their "humanity." Those who walked beside Mother would by necessity have to walk where the shunned and the outcast dwelled. They would have to risk controversy and censure. Mother's moral bar was one of her own creation, but she did not impose it on anyone - except by the extraordianry example she set in her daily life. She had no recriminations for those who could not walk her road. Mother's strength came from her deep faith, which nothing - not even the worst atrocities she witnessed - could erode.

Mother loved the poor for their generosity of spirit, their hope and their humanity:

"Look in the faces of the poor in the bustees, in the slums and you will see them smiling. They may have no food in their swollen bellies, no roof over their head, but whatever they have they will share with others who are poor like themselves. They are not alone because they have each other. We have so much to learn from the poor."

Above all Mother loved children and small babies. I remember her saying they were the closest thing to God - the divine - on earth.

So many years have passed since that sunny spring morning in the courtyard of Mother House, when my mother took me to visit Mother.

Birdsong and the touch of Mother's hand on my head are memories entwined. My mother had given me something that day that would shape the rest of my life. "You help mummy ok?" The famous wrinkled smile and twinkling eyes marked the end of our visit and the weathered wooden door of Mother House closed. My mother and I were alone in the lane, wending our way back to the car and the multitudes on bustling Lower Circular Road.The twittering sparrows remained with Mother at Mother House.

Whenever I see sparrows I remember that day and think of Mother. I feel her spirit in their joy and optimism and boundless energy. She loved all birds and animals, as did her favorite saint, Francis of Assissi, whose prayer my mother had - and still has - on her bedside table, alongside the photo of Mother. Both are worn with age, precious for the memories they hold.

For all of those who knew her then, she will always be "Mother." She walked where few dare to tread and she witnessed her fellow human beings at their lowest possible ebb. She found and inspired hope in the most degraded circumstances. She never tired and she never recoiled from what she found.

For most of us, the degradation and illness she handled with her own two hands and her enormous heart would destroy our faith in humanity. But not Mother. She believed in helping, and in healing, even if the person had only a few hours to live. She extended the suffering and the outcasts her strong, sinewy hands, and took them away from the stinking hovels and garbage piles in which she found them. She gave them the one thing she had in abundance - her love - before they departed this earth. Way back then they knew she was a saint. Those she saved did not need anyone else to tell them that.

I have a small, timeworn booklet with frayed corners commemorating Mother's 1979 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in Norway. It faces me every day above the desk at which I write. My mother gave it to me when I left my childhood home in India to make my own life in the West. The cover, inscribed with a few lines, bears a picture of Mother with a baby, whose tiny hands reach for her deeply lined face (illustrated).

See! I will not forget you...

I have carved you on the palm of My Hand....

I have called you by your name...

You are mine....

You are precious to Me....

I love you.

(- Isaiah -)

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org

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