Her gate is guarded by a boy about five years old, barefoot in shorts and T–shirt. He squints at us. Our guide asks in Bengali if Mother Teresa is in. The boy rubs his nose and waves us through the gate at 54A Lower Circular Road, Calcutta, India.
I had written to Mother Teresa in November 1979, requesting a January 1980 interview. I hadn’t received an answer. That wasn’t surprising. Mail between California and India took weeks, and my request was audacious. I’d asked Mother Teresa for a personal visit.
Then yesterday on the phone, my husband, Burt, at home in California, said the answer had arrived. It was dated Dec. 24. Mother Teresa had taken time on Christmas Eve to write a letter of welcome!
An unspeakable privilege. But I hadn’t yet made an appointment or mentally prepared, so I choked this morning when K.L. Gupta, our ebullient guide, twisted around from the front seat of the World Vision van to the back, where the kids and I sat, and said, “Sister Ruth, would you like to see Mother Teresa? … Now?”
We walk down a concrete alley to the Motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity, a compound of church buildings. Soon we’re wading among dozens of children who clamor to have their pictures taken. We take their pictures.
A nun asks quietly if she can help. She hands us over to a shy, tall man who leads us to an unmarked door. We climb a short flight of stairs. The man asks us to remove our shoes and wait inside the door ahead.
I feel like Alice in Wonderland — people appearing, disappearing. “Do this, go there.” Inside the door, we step onto a balcony over a bricked yard where young novices are washing linens, their white habits and blue aprons bouncing. They laugh like teenagers anywhere.
We hear chanting. In a bright room down the hall, about 20 nuns kneel in precision rows before an altar, holding prayer books. The sun pours in and floods the place with a tremulous hush.
Someone says, “Here she is.” We turn to see. Already among us is a small, barefoot, familiar-looking woman. Her face crumples in a smile; she says hello. Excusing herself, she disappears into a low curtained doorway.
When she emerges, she goes to my children. She lingers with each one, giving total, warm attention, holding his or her hand, apparently memorizing faces. She indicates the stone bench. She and I sit. Simplicity is all around us. Burly wool blankets on the rail. Gray cardigan and white sari on Mother Teresa. Her face itself is simplicity — full of sorrow and joy, comfortable with aging, unguarded.
She is so ready to listen, I’m tempted to tell her my life story. Instead, I ramble. I tell about my “calling” to take the kids around the globe, stay in third-class hotels, tour aid projects, write reports for World Vision Magazine. “I’m typical of many Americans. We want to help people who suffer, but we feel helpless … the problems are so big … . ”
All this while, Mother Teresa has leaned toward me, lips pursed. Now she points a finger at me.
“Tell your American friends they don’t have to go around the world to find people who suffer. In America there are many needs. People are lonely! They feel alienated.”
Unexpectedly, I have tears. This gentle nun has touched a pain. On this trip, I’ve felt lonely, alienated. So have the kids. We miss Burt. We miss home. Hosts treat us with kindness, but fevers, rashes, parasites, unknown customs and foods have taken their toll.
I say, “I know. I’ve felt lonely on this trip.” Mother Teresa nods. “Yes, but only a little.”
She frowns. “Some people are so lonely they want to die! They need love, especially the old people. If we have Jesus’ love, we must share it.”
Now she smiles.
I’ve read that when she first walked among the dying, she had nothing to give but a smile, so she smiled, bending to each person. Her smile made old men weep.
Mother Teresa models love, there in her hall. She is fully present. She doesn’t “keep her engine running” as if more important people are waiting. She gives herself to us nobodies. I ask about her home for disabled children. We make plans for a site visit. She asks about our family, our work. I ask about the South Bronx Missionaries of Charity. She writes the address in my notebook.
I stand up to leave. As we thank her, Mother Teresa holds the kids’ hands again. I say my daughter, Lindsey, wants to work with children. Mother Teresa smiles and asks Lindsey, “Would you like to come here and be a Missionary of Charity?” She turns to the boys. “And you, too? You could wear clothes like mine!” Mother Teresa holds her skirts to the side as if to curtsy.
• • •
Nobody was a nobody to Mother Teresa. Everybody was Somebody. I’ve told this story to other friends, earlier, and now you too—you Somebody, you!—have Mother Teresa’s blessing on every smile you bestow.