I woke up the same way as most mornings, with my mother coming into the room I shared with my sister and opening the drapes. As the sunlight streamed in, I sat up and rubbed my eyes as my sister buried her head under her pillow for a few more minutes rest.
Today though, my mother paused, looking out the window towards the top of our street. “Come see girls.” she said. “Delores is making her First Communion.”
Delores was an Italian girl a year younger than I, though she towered over me and all the other little girls on our street. She was blessed with physical features that, while in and of themselves weren’t horrible, conspired to give her face a awkward, disjointed appearance. Operations to correct her crossed eyes had been only partly successful.
Her strange looks, coupled with her tremendous size, made her an object of ridicule throughout her childhood. She was teased mercilessly by most kids, and scorned by the rest. I, however, had always been forced to play with her. My mother was far too astute to let the local sport of Delores baiting go on in her presence. I was the only one who had to invite her to my birthday parties, and even go to play with her at her home. It did me no harm – in fact, we got along fine, especially when away from the cruelty of others she was able to relax.
I joined my mother at the window and saw Delores standing on her front lawn. Her mother was yelling and gesturing with her hands, trying to get her to smile for her father’s camera. Delores looked uncomfortable in a massive, dramatic dress with yards and yards of lace and silk. Her mother was a tiny, birdlike woman who had probably been quite lovely in her youth. Her distaste for her clumsy, homely daughter was never quite hidden from view.
Today, she was trying to transform her into something else by her wardrobe. It was a completely inappropriate dress – full length, with a long train and veil, covered with lace and beading. I didn’t know it then but, at age 8, Delores was about to make her First Communion wearing her mother’s wedding gown. All I knew was that it was the most gorgeous dress I had ever seen.
“Ohhh…” I cried, “She looks like a princess!”
My mother stared at me a moment and then said; “You know, she does look like a princess. Why don’t you go and tell her so?”
I looked up the street and saw that they were starting to load things in the car for the drive to the church. “But they are leaving right now!” I said, “and I have to get dressed.”
“No you don’t.’ Said my mother. “It’s warm outside, you can just run up in your pajamas.”
Outside? In my pajamas? Now this was something exquisitely delicious. I ran as fast as I could across the lawns between our houses, the ground soft under my feet. The morning dew made my thin pajamas slap against my shins.
“Delores!” I shouted as I got closer, “wait! Wait!” Panting when I reached them I could finally get the words out. “Delores – you look like a princess!”
Her face brightened up and a peal of laughter rang out. I am shamed to recall just how rare a sound that was. Shyly, she showed me all the details of her dress and even twirled around the yard. Her father took pictures of the two of us together.
Her mother clutched at my sleeve “You had better get back home” she hissed at me, “You’re going to catch it if your mother sees you out here in your pajamas!”
“No, it’s okay.” I told her. “My mother sent me.” She looked up the street and we could see my mother and my sister, now roused from her bed, waving gaily at the front door.
“She’s really quite something, your mother.” Delores’ mother said, “You know that don’t you?”
“Sure” I replied. But I didn’t know it then. Not really.
Years later, in high school, when I learned how important it was to belong, to feel part of, I remembered Delores. I knew then how nice it was for her to have me in those pictures with her on that special day. How lovely it was for her to hear me say those kind words to her. My mother’s inherent kindness knew that it would make a difference to her.
But it wasn’t until I was a mother myself that I realized that my mother had done it for Delores’ mother as well. We live and breathe every care, every pain, every sadness that our children go through. They say the definition of growing up is giving up all hope of a better childhood. What do you call it when you realize you were luckier than you ever knew?