[I narrate a story that is not my own, yet is, in its essentials, a true tale.]
I like eating and good food but cooking takes time and creativity and in the early months of motherhood my imagination was taken up with how to manage to put my baby down long enough to use the bathroom and get dressed.
After a particularly bad run of days, eating boiled eggs and powdery apples with crinkly skins, while my husband was away on business, I decided to take myself out to lunch in a restaurant. Nothing fancy. I just had to eat something vaguely nourishing without having to wash the dishes myself.
I didn’t want to go anywhere I had to book a table because babies can’t tell the time and being late is not something I allow myself to be. I plumped for the bistro I’d been into once, before my son was born, because I recalled having seen pots of crayons on the tables, indicating children (or artists) are welcome, or at least not frowned upon. Not that my 15-week-old baby was likely to be making any pictures just yet, unless you count spewed-up milk or a leaking nappy, which admittedly can be colourfully vivid.
I chose a corner table and was glad of the busy hubbub, as people would be taking little notice of me and my bundle that would need a breastfeed any time in the next few minutes. I struggled to take off my jacket without dropping my baby. I had him in my arms since I hadn’t worked out how on earth to wear him in reams of material like the mothers I’d watched on Youtube deftly wrapping meters round and round themselves. I’d just ended in a cross muddle looking as though I’d pulled down the curtains from the window right on top of us. If I put him in a pram, he wailed and, anyway, I wasn’t going to struggle with parking that vehicle. I hate to feel conspicuous.
Somehow I managed to get us both settled without knocking anything over or off the adjacent tables and was reading the menu with my son tucked under my jumper nursing discreetly, I hoped, because my cheeks were flushed, when an old lady pulled out the chair right next to me and asked if I minded whether she joined me. I did mind—quite considerably—but was too polite to say so and just nodded. My face was bright red and I felt uncomfortable breastfeeding my baby right next to someone I didn’t know.
The waitress came over directly and we both ordered.
My son came off the breast and I moved him over to the other, a little less clumsily now I was getting used to unclipping my bra without needing to contort my entire body to do so. Nonetheless I could not imagine many things that could make me more ill at ease and was wishing I’d stayed at home no matter how hungry.
The old lady beamed. Her whole face lit up and her dark eyes sparkled. “You are a good mother to give him what is best “ she said. “It does me good to see and to remember what has passed.” We sat in silence for a few minutes. But it was peaceful, not awkward and then, almost as if she had waited for me to get comfortable, she asked in an accent that had a lot of rustling sounds,
“May I tell you my story?”
I was curious and something about her voice made me feel I was drawing my chair closer to a fireside and indeed it seemed she had secrets to share. What she went on to narrate was no less than heartbreaking. She told her tale simply and with dignity in her directness. “It was a long time ago and I was very tiny, I cannot remember more than a few moments but I heard what happened from another… from a survivor.”
She told me she was Polish and during the Second World War, in 1943, the German Gestapo arrested her parents for allegedly having stolen something. It was a jumped up charge that had no truth in it, she was sure. Along with her mother and father and her two brothers, she was sent to a concentration camp. On arrival, stripped of her few belongings, she was separated from her family and never set eyes on any of them again. Incarcerated with a dozen women, one of whom was pregnant and gave birth shortly after their arrival. Newborns were routinely taken away from their mothers as soon as they were born and never returned to them. Such inhuman cruelty is hard to contemplate. “And do you know this grieving mother scooped me into her empty arms and fed me the milk she had made in her breast for her own baby. Without that I too may have perished.”
I had no words to speak what was in my heart, so I grasped her hand for a few moments of poignant solidarity. When our food was served she consciously brightened her tone and told me all about her own children and her grandchildren and how they had all flourished on their mother’s milk and what a precious thing it was “this living love.”
And so an old woman I’d not known an hour before in this way revealed to me that maternity is a gift not a burden and breastfeeding is certainly nothing to be hidden away in shame.
Two years after that seminal moment in early motherhood, I returned to have lunch at this same restaurant with a friend and our young children, who by this time were more likely to eat the crayons than draw pictures with them, when who should come in but the very same dear old lady who had imparted such wisdom to me. She sat down next to a flustered looking woman nursing a tiny baby, just as I had done mine. I hadn’t even noticed until now that the young mother was holding a little baby beneath the baggy clothes carefully draped around her to conceal what she was doing. Our table was just in front of theirs and I could hear their conversation without eavesdropping. I was dumbfounded by what I heard!
“When I was born,” the old lady began, in what I recognized to be an Irish accent, or whatever country it came from, it certainly was not Poland or Germany, “my mother left me in a box on a doorstep and I never set eyes on her from that moment on.” Her story unfolded movingly. The baby’s mother left a short note alongside her abandoned infant in which she told of her fall from grace and the impossibility of raising a child with no man to marry her or anyone in the world to care for her. The desperate mother also knew, it transpired, that the lady of the house on whose doorstep she had deposited the box had only just lost her own newborn baby who had died before she was two days old …
I could scarcely believe my ears! What a wonderful storyteller this old lady was and I do think the whole part about her own children and theirs that followed was fully the same as all she had previously shared with me. And very much as I had done myself, the young mother who had listened to the story left the place with a bounce in her step. I thought the next time she fed her little one at a restaurant table, she would think how blessed she was to be a mother with a baby to put to her breast and she’d forget her shyness and cherish the closeness.
I wanted a chance to greet the old woman before leaving, but one moment I was gathering up spilled crayons from the floor, the next, I turned round and she was gone. I wonder what tale she will be dining out on next and how much of her true story is a part of each one.