My mom was five years old when her father died. My grandmother became a widow at the age of 29 and the sole caretaker and provider of their five children spanning the ages of newborn to eight years old. This was the rural Philippines in 1960, where families in despair were not afforded the same assistance as someone in the United States present day. There was no WIC or welfare or food stamps or state provided childcare or life insurance. There was just my grandmother and her five small children. Two of them crying for food, three of them crying for their father.
My mom doesn’t talk about it much, and it took a little coercing on my part for her to allow me to write this story. I remember being a kid and sitting in our kitchen, eating a peanut butter sandwich while my mom would quietly tell me slivers of stories from her childhood. Most days, they shared a pot of water with a little bit of rice, overcooked so the starches would turn the water into soup, and that was their dinner.
On the rare occasion that my grandmother could purchase an egg, it was one egg, hard boiled, and sliced into five pieces. One fifth of an egg for each of her children, and none for herself. Her children ate it slowly, savoring each bite, a welcome change from their usual rice porridge. With no help and little income, my grandmother had to do something that I’m not sure I as a mother could ever bear – she sent her children to off to live with different relatives, so she could live in the city and work and know that her children weren’t going hungry. At the age of six, my mom was working in fields, harvesting grains, getting paid in rice and corn. She’d go home and sleep in a small room with several people – unroll her mat on the floor and cover herself with a thin sheet. Their bellies were full a little more of the time, but their hearts ached for their family.
I could hardly bear to hear these stories when I was a child, well-fed and warm and wanting for nothing. I can hardly bear to write them now, remembering these stories as a grown-up, who is still well-fed and warm and wanting for nothing.
I forget them when a new West Elm catalog comes in or when I make a face over ballet class tuition or when I lament over some house upgrade that I think we need. I forget that our tiny house and our postage stamp lawn and our modest income still make us some of the richest people in the world – we who have shelter and clothing and clean water. We who eat three meals a day and own more than one pair of shoes. We who can visit the doctor when we’re ill, we who have never faced a cold winter without a thick coat and a pair of gloves. I forget, sometimes.
My mother doesn’t forget. My mom who, despite incredible heartache and devastating circumstances, has worked incredibly hard her entire life. Growing up, I’d sit in the backseat and be witness to her pulling over and stopping for every hitchhiker, every homeless man with a sign, every car broken down on the side of the road. Her house has become a home to many over the years – strangers and friends alike. If only someone could have done that for her when she was a child – dropped off a dozen eggs on her mother’s doorstep, a bag of rice, or a little money. If only someone could have outstretched a hand, shown an act of love, offered a little comfort to a grieving woman and her children.
I’m going to Guatemala in a few weeks with World Vision, a humanitarian organization, to visit a child I sponsor and to tell the stories of the children and the families there. When I said yes to going, it was an uncomfortable, timid yes. Yes, but my children. Yes, but an entire week away from my family. Yes, but my girls are still so little. But then I think of the woman who raised me, and the woman who raised her. I think about how a sponsor would have been a game-changer in her life. And my mother’s story, which wrecks me to my very core, is just one story from decades ago among many, many stories that are happening now. As a family, we make the sacrifice. The only way I can leave my children, as so eloquently stated by Elizabeth Esther, is for the sake of all children.
And so off I go, and I’m unsure of how to prepare myself for more stories, not told to me by my mother, but me as a mother – told to me by children as young as my own. I’ll be meeting the little girl I sponsor, but there are still many children in the village I will be visiting who are without a sponsor. I’d love for you to join me and sponsor one of them. You can click here to do so.
My hope is one day that these children will tell their own children their stories, of how they not just endured, but thrived, with the help of the love of strangers. And maybe like my mom, they’ll gratefully stand in their own kitchens in their own heated homes, boil two eggs, and eat them all by themselves.