First Person – A Mother of Wisdom

Calcutta’s kaleidoscope of teeming streets, sprawling markets and chaotic taxis has always mesmerized me.

At times, it seems as though all 10 million denizens of this eastern Indian metropolis are roaming the city at once, surging in tidal waves, an urban sea of humanity. It was here that Mother Teresa pursued her humanitarian mission for almost 70 years.

My wife, Simone, and I have visited Calcutta (now called Kolkata) often, setting aside time to plod our way through the cacophonous traffic along Chandra Bose Road to the calm oasis of Mother Teresa’s shelter for children, Shishu Bhavan. We would spend a day or two volunteering, as do so many others from around the world, to care for the youngsters. The volunteers always included Jews, who were welcomed as all others in this basically Catholic institution.

The children, salvaged from the streets or often left at the main gate, found refuge here from a harsh world. We fed and washed them, and played games with them. From one year to the next we got to know the familiar faces of those orphans and abandoned waifs not fortunate enough to have been adopted by families from India and abroad.

On one memorable visit to the shelter my wife sat on the floor telling picture-book stories to two wide-eyed toddlers tucked under her arms. In another room, I lingered at the crib bed of Priti, a disabled teenager whose congenital spinal condition left her helplessly prone and silent. Priti could not speak coherently; could scarcely move her limbs. I stroked her sleek back hair and hummed songs to her, as she studied me intently with her coal-black eyes. The nuns had told me she had little chance of long-term survival, and she has since died. Her contorted face remains deeply etched in my memory.

On earlier visits to the shelter we had never met Mother Teresa, who died eight years ago on Sept. 5. World traveler that she was, she had always been abroad when we were there.

This time we got lucky. We climbed the several flights of stairs and waited in the passage outside Mother Teresa’s room, curious and excited. A young nun who was to introduce us said that Mother Teresa’s small room was very Spartan. Emulating the poor, the nun said, Mother Teresa slept on a narrow cot, and used no electric fan to cope with Calcutta’s sweltering climate.

The door opened and a tiny figure in the familiar white and sapphire-blue bordered sari strode toward us in her bronzed bare feet. A graceful smile lit up her furrowed features, as she brought her palms together welcoming us with the traditional Bengali, “Namaskar.”

“Last Sunday I passed 80 years,” she said, with a cheerful lilt.

“In my religion,” I replied, “we wish you 120 years!”

Her quizzical look told me she might never have heard that Jewish birthday greeting before. I was convinced it hadn’t registered when, after telling her we were from New York, she spiritedly advised Simone, “You must go to our mission in the South Bronx … you can help out there.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the needs of the Calcutta shelter. As this scarcely 5-foot-tall dynamic woman spoke, I searched her eyes. They had an endless depth emanating a calm assurance and an artless candor. These hazel eyes seemed to project intense compassion.

Was I ascribing this aura out of awe inspired by her? Or was it a kind of celebrity worship?

I wasn’t sure.

She held up her right hand and bent each extended finger, one at a time, as she recited five words: “He did this for me.” Simone and I smiled at this simple prayer of gratitude. From somewhere on her person she produced two little yellow cards on which were printed a poem she had written. She offered them to us, touching our hands gently:

“The fruit of Silence is Prayer

The fruit of Prayer is Faith

The fruit of Faith is Love

The fruit of Love is Service

The fruit of Service is Peace”

I still have that yellow card. But I choose to remember first another poem, far more personal, said to be in her handwriting, found on the wall above her bed after she died:

“The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.

Be good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be good enough.

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.”

For more information on Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, call (718) 292-0019 or write 335 E. 145th Street, Bronx, N.Y.

Jack Goldfarb has been traveling worldwide and writing about his journeys for more than 30 years. Formerly a resident of London and Tel Aviv, he now lives in New York City.