My daughter and I were out shopping for school supplies last weekend. We went to Target because they send me coupons, even though it typically turns out that we can’t use said coupons because we aren’t buying $20 worth of Crayola products or she doesn’t need to save $2 on a new backpack because she doesn’t need a new backpack. But there we were, standing in front of a monstrous display of folders that was one step away from avalanche proportions, when two older women (okay, older than I am anyway), turned into the aisle where we were. Despite their capri pants and T-shirts, I immediately knew that they were nuns.
I can spot a nun at 30 paces. Maybe it’s due to my years in Catholic elementary school and a Catholic college (the former a choice that was made for me, the latter a choice that was made by circumstances and finances). Somehow women who are nuns just always look happier and more peaceful than everybody else. At least they do to me.
There have been moments in my life when something in the universe tells me to talk to a certain stranger. Something told me to say hello to these women, so I did. They said hello back. Then I asked if they were teachers.
“Yes,” one said, and mentioned she teaches at a local Catholic high school. The other woman said she taught at a local Catholic college, which so happens to be my alma mater. They were at Target to “fill” four backpacks with school supplies as part of a back-to-school program for disadvantaged children.
“I’m an alumna,” I said. “And my mother used to manage the bookstore there.” My mother’s employment was the reason I transferred to that college in my sophomore year and the only reason I was able to afford to complete my bachelor’s degree without putting myself further into ridiculous debt. My mom was a single parent by the time I was ready for college. As the last in a large family, there was nothing resembling a college fund for me. She didn’t have the finances to give me money for college. Instead, she gave me support, encouragement, unconditional love, and a safe place to live as long as I needed it. And through her job, she gave me a bachelor’s degree.
When I told this woman, this religious woman who has devoted her life to teaching and serving others, who my mother was, her expression turned wistful.
“Your mother was so generous…” she began.
You know how when someone says something nice about something dear to you, your mind gets all fluttery with happiness and gratitude until you can no longer hear their actual words, just the emotion behind them? No? Maybe it’s just me. When I had my first short story accepted, the editor called me up me and I’m not sure I remember what she said after “Your story is beautiful.” I just knew they loved it. And that’s what happened here. This woman said something lovely about my mother, and my mind went all to mush.
I only had a few dollars in cash on me, but I pulled my money out of my pocket and said, “Can I make a small donation to school supply fund?”
Both women looked at me and said, “You’re just like your mother.”
My mom died 11 years ago. My daughter is the only one of her grandchildren she never got to meet. I talk to my child about her grandmother, but I know that there’s a level of displacement there. Pictures and stories can’t replace the flesh.
My role now is The Mom. At her school, I’m “E’s Mom.” In a store or restaurant or park or anywhere, I’m the mom with the cute little girl. With my own mom having been gone so long, it’s a rare moment when I have the opportunity to think of myself as a daughter. When these two kind women said I was just like my mother, I admit I melted a little bit, turned all to mush. Because you know what? Even after 11 years, I still miss my something awful. There are days when I have questions about being a parent or questions that I can’t seem to answer on my own or days when I just wish I could be someone’s child again.
After we chatted for a few minutes, the kindly nuns and I parted ways. As they turned the aisle, one of them said, “It was an honor to celebrate your mother.”
Indeed it was.