It was a day like any other. I felt the uneven lip of the curb through my threadbare shorts and my feet were gritty in my mismatched flip flops. My hands were perpetually open and raised to the passersby, I droned on a monotone of petition. It takes too much effort to put emotion into words that run on, unbroken, unchanged. “Money please. I need to eat. I’m so hungry. Money please.” I was six years old.
It was a day like any other, but a woman unlike any other. She stooped down and looked at me. I was looking at the air, waiting for a cold coin to be pressed into my hand. I didn’t see people anymore, not unless they got close. She was close. I dragged my eyes from the air and looked into eyes that startled me. Had anyone ever looked at me full in the eyes before? She was old, her kind eyes framed by wrinkles that cascaded one over another, kind of like the piped waves of frosting on the wedding cakes in the bakery window that I’d look at to torture myself. She had gray hair and it was long and braided.
While the crowds pushed past we sat and looked at one another. Without words she offered me her aged hand, opening it like a beggar and waiting. I gave her mine and we stood. She spoke simply, “I need a daughter and you need a mother. Will it suit you?” It was all too surreal to protest, so I just nodded. We climbed the stairs to her apartment and I was surprised to find her rooms overflowing with people. I knew some of them, other beggar kids, a local drug dealer, some teenagers I’d seen living fast. They turned at our entrance. They smiled.
I was given a blanket and a toothbrush and the woman went to a large closet and rummaged through bins until she found me clothing. She seemed radiant as she brought an armload of clothes to me. Why was she so happy? Look how many people she was already caring for! “Go and enjoy a long bath and then you can put on these and see what fits. The girl’s bathroom is down the hall to the right. I’ll make supper early; I’m sure you’re hungry!” She turned then to go to the kitchen, but stopped suddenly, coming back to me quickly. In a low whisper she asked, “Have you bathed before?”
She didn’t seem surprised. “I’ll show you what to do and then leave you to it. When you’re done washing, I’ll comb your hair out and trim your nails. Just call for me, my name is Mama.”
An hour later I felt five pounds lighter and my fingertips tingled where the long jagged nails used to be. My hair felt soft and it smelled good. My clothes were soft too. Was this Heaven? Mama was kind and loving and imperfect too. Sometimes she lost her temper with her many responsibilities, sometimes she doubted that she’d be able to put food on the table for all of us sons and daughters. Sometimes she’d see another beggar near our home and she’d turn away, overwhelmed. I didn’t judge her; the rest of the people never even considered bringing ones like me home at all. She was just one woman, after all, and she did her best.
She made sure we were educated, she clothed us, she tenderly drew our stories out of us, celebrated our victories, and got mad at our lies and meanness. She prayed for us; oh man did she ever pray. What our home lacked in beauty, it made up for in joy and rich memories.
A courier came to our door when I was sixteen years old. I remember that was my age because Mama had just celebrated my ten year anniversary of being adopted into the family. Celebrated with a big fluffy cake and everything. He gave her a letter addressed to me, and we all sat down as I read it out loud:
“Dear Lenora Winter (Winter was Mama’s last name, I’d never known my own),
Your real mother lives just across town. She is ready to receive you at any time of your choosing. Her address is below.
Anders Simm, Secretary of Marie Knox”
My real mother? She lived? Why hadn’t she ever come looking for me back when I was living in cardboard boxes and begging for bread. Real mother? Ready to receive me, but won’t actually come and introduce herself?
Mama’s eyes narrowed. “Lenora, you’ll have to do as you see fit with that bit of news. Just know that your family here loves you and you’ll always have a home here with us.”
I stared at the paper. Something moved within me; what would it be like to find my real mother? To feel connected to a large extended family that went back through the ages? To be no adopted orphan, but a real flesh and blood relation? A day later I stood outside the gates to a splendid mansion and I rang the doorbell.
I was ushered into a grand hall and portraits, gigantic beautiful portraits decorated every wall. I walked past the watchful eyes of my ancestors. I wasn’t sure how I felt when I looked at them. Some strange mixture of comfort and unease. Large doors opened before me and there stood a magnificent lady. Very regal and very ancient, she threw her arms wide and bid me come.
I awkwardly hugged her. She really did seem to love and welcome me, but hurt kept crawling up my throat when my eyes would meet hers. Why had she not looked for me? Why was she glad to receive me, but not to seek me out when I needed her most?
She smiled at me and said, “Welcome home”.
I spent a few hours with her. She read me the family history from big leather-bound books that lined an impressive library. She explained who all the portraits depicted. She introduced me to the warm and loving brothers and sisters I had. They were beautiful and ordinary and joyful. She showed me my room and asked me to change for dinner. A lovely gown was all laid-out across my bed. Such finery, such beauty. She’d almost left the room, but paused and came back to my side, something weighing on her mind.
“I must tell you, my daughter,” she said seriously, “that if this day you sit at my table and share my bread and wine, you may never eat with your former family again. This will be your only place of nourishment, your new and true family. Though your former family meant well, they do not know how far wrong they are in their beliefs and table practices. Do you agree to my terms?”
“What?” I exclaimed, “Never share their table again? Why? They are the ones who adopted me, who picked me up from the street corner and loved me, filthy and lost as I was….abandon them? They may be wrong in some ways, but they are right in others. I cannot do as you have asked.”
She sighed. “But I am your true mother and this is your true home. I hope you can see that someday.” With that she turned and left.
I left the gown where it lay and walked back out the long hall, the eyes of my ancestors watching me from painted faces. I went home to Mama and she embraced me. I went to my bed and curled up into a ball. I wept. I had no idea whose claim on me was valid, but I knew whose hands had reached out to me.
A reflection in short story about my recent research into the Holy Orthodox Church, which has a strong claim about most accurately reflecting the practices and beliefs of the early church. Growing up in the cradle of Protestantism, however, it is hard to swallow the things which the Orthodox Church asks of me.