Saturday, May 7, 2011

Me and Momma T

Mother Theresa, New Delhi, 1979
In 1979, I was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines. Young, single, adventurous, I spent much of my free time traveling abroad volunteering with a variety of humanitarian groups.

I became an airline employee because I loved to travel; volunteering internationally, learning about 'other peoples' and politics, was a dream. For ten years I think I answered every request to bring home children to the States and to bring supplies abroad to orphanages and refugees, sometimes literally traveling at a minute's notice. I went to Korea and India dozens of times, to Nicaragua and El Salvador, Afghanistan, Colombia and Honduras. I slept in hotels, in peoples' homes, on a cot in orphanages. Holding children tightly in my lap, I remember watching Prince Charles marry Lady Diana on a black and white television set in St. Vincent's Home for Amerasian children in Bu Pyung, Incheon, South Korea. I always felt that I took in far more than I gave on these trips, though my memories and photo albums are filled with 'thank you' notes from grateful parents.

In India, I often stayed with an Anglo-Indian family in a well-off suburb of New Delhi. The family regularly volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity. On one visit, at breakfast, my host asked very casually, “Would you like to meet Mother Theresa today?” I was pretty excited to say the least.

Actually, I had spoken to Mother Theresa on a previous visit, but we had never met. On that earlier trip, to Kolkata, a friend in the US had requested that, while I was there, I telephone a Catholic nun she knew, “Momma T” was her name, and tell her that “Elizabeth and Bob say hello and send their love.” This couple had worked in Vietnam with refugees and orphans and I thought "Momma T" was simply a close friend from the past now living in India. I dutifully wrote "Momma T’s" telephone number in my address book and placed it safely in my purse.

Once in Kolkata, I phoned "Momma T" from the desk of the Fairlawn Hotel (the same hotel and the same desk can be seen in the film, City of Joy, with Patrick Swayze). I did not at first realize that I was calling the Mother House of Missionaries of Charity. I politely asked the person answering if I could speak to “Momma T,” saying I had a message from some friends of hers in the US. It is important to understand that at this time I had no idea that I was calling a future Nobel Prize Laureate who would be fast-tracked to sainthood by the Vatican. Indeed, "Momma T" - Mother Theresa - came to the phone and we had a short chat during which I conveyed my friends' message. Now, back to our meeting.

In New Delhi, my host said that Mother Theresa was attending the opening of a leprosarium that very afternoon. We piled into the family's Ambassador car and the driver first took us to a bookstore. There, we purchased copies of a book about Mother Theresa and her work, Something Beautiful for God by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge before heading to the leprosarium dedication where we would have our purchases autographed.

While I had seen lepers living and begging in the city streets of India, I had never met a community of lepers and the entire experience was humbling. Mother Theresa was diminutive in stature, but larger than life, funny, warm and full of hugs for everyone around. She autographed my book (which I raffled off many years later to raise money for medical trips for Healing the Children, NE, Inc.) and, two weeks after we met, she sent a personal letter on British Airways stationary to my home in Washington, DC, thanking me for my work with the children. I remember the chills I felt as I read, "Dear Jean" and how amazed I was that Mother Theresa had taken the time to pen a hand-written note. The letter I still have. Ditto the address book.

So, in honor of Mother’s Day, here is my story of meeting a woman who was a “Momma” to the poor, the orphaned, the disenfranchised and, in this case, the naive and awestruck.

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