By Christine Ennulat, ChildFund Staff Writer
I couldn’t stop looking at her: the regal profile, the swanlike neck, the strong, elegant shoulders. She looked like a dancer. She looked like Nefertiti, out of place amid the trash heaps and makeshift shacks of the Haitian slum where we met.
It was 1983, and I was a teenager on a summer mission trip. That day, we had walked through the fringes of Cap-Haitien to attend an open-air church service. After three weeks in Haiti, I thought I’d seen serious poverty. The uphill hike through the slum showed me different.
She was a congregation member, one of several young mothers not much older than the coltish adolescent girls who chased each other, laughing and barefoot, over the dirt paths strewn with bits of plastic, metal and glinting glass. Her baby cooed in her arms, his tiny hands opening and closing like starfish. She saw me looking and raised her eyebrows, her body language asking, Want to hold him?
I accepted his warm weight, and he and I enjoyed a little conversation of nonsense and smiles until my group stood to leave and it was time for me to hand him back.
She held up her hand and looked away: No. Keep him. Take him with you.
It took me a moment to fully grasp her meaning. Three decades later, I still don’t want to.
Three decades later, I am a mother, too. And I still think about that young woman. I call her Queen.
I also think about another girl in that mission group — let’s call her Maria — who also had my attention that day. In fact, she had everyone’s attention, because her tender soul was so moved by the poverty she saw that she cried prettily all the way down the hill.
This enraged me. I didn’t know why.
All these years later, though, I think I understand. Part of it was my wanting to feel as “deeply” as Maria clearly did. Plus, my anger wasn’t satisfying, which made me angrier.
Even more annoying was that Maria was getting all kinds of strokes for leaking all her feelings all over the place. But what good did they do? What was the point?
Not that my anger did any good, either. But it did plant a seed.
Queen has come to mind now and again over the years, especially after I had my own babies, when her image would pierce the idyllic, milky haze of (suburban, privileged) new motherhood at odd times. Eventually, I became aware that what had felt so wrong on that day was the friction between Maria’s pretty tears and that young mother’s quiet, tired dignity.
Queen deserved better.
The mothers I’ve met in my travels for ChildFund deserve better: the mother who got married at 13, got pregnant at 14, lost that baby and had another soon after. The widowed mother trying to keep her own AIDS in check at least until she can get her daughter through school. The mother who weeps over her husband’s beatings, and then over beating her little boy when she reaches her wits’ end. The young women who keep their pregnancies secret for fear that evil spirits will attack. The mothers who lose children to the evil spirits of malnutrition, infection, conflict.
The mothers who are working to heal — themselves, their children. The mothers who are reaching out for support, who are learning, who are fighting their way past their own fears to take hold of their own power and help their own children beat the odds.
“She’s so full of love!” my group leaders exclaimed about Maria. “So compassionate!”
What I understand now is that true love means knowing, and knowing that you don’t know. And compassion? Compassion wants action. Compassion needs legs.
I’ve got to hand it to Maria, who, after all, did spend that summer sweating on that orphanage construction project, just like I did. And she probably grew up, just like I did.
Just like I hope Queen did. Like I hope her little boy did.