My Mother’s Table

My mother’s antecedents were Potato Famine Irish and Highland Clearances Scots, and she had vivid recollections of hard times as a girl growing up during the Great Depression. Mom’s reaction to this cultural and social legacy of hardship was to look after any strays or orphans who came her way.

Everybody was welcome in my mother’s house, the graduate students from Finland, Libya, Japan, and Germany; the goofy neighbor–a retired game warden–who always talked too loudly; the parish priests (dudes could eat); the lady from church who ran a hat shop that never seemed to sell any merchandise. Mom’s friends included an alcoholic mother of six who ran a hair salon in her spare room, every neighbor on our street, other professor’s wives, and anybody who needed a square meal.

The lessons I learned from her example–without even realizing it–were to try see the humanity in everybody and to regard novelty as interesting rather than threatening.

One of my dad’s graduate students arrived from half-way around the world to find her accommodations on campus weren’t ready. This woman was quite smart, but when I met her she was also extremely jet-lagged, her English wasn’t up to speed, and she had nowhere to stay. Mom of course offered her the hospitality of the house, but also asked her if she’d like to use the phone to call home at a time when “long-distance” was a big deal. This was probably the first and only trans-Atlantic phone call placed from our house.

This very smart, world-traveling tadpole scientist burst into tears. To my mom, Tuula was just a girl far from home who needed a place to stay.

The oldest siblings in my family are twin guys thirteen years my senior. The Burrowes were nine at dinner, but no matter who John or Dick brought home with them from practice, we wedged another chair (or more chairs) around the table. From infancy on, my evening meal was a place to listen to points of view other my family’s, to  hear accents other than the local Central-Pa back forty, and to learn from cultures outside my own.

I hadn’t realized what a broadening influence my mother’s generous spirit was until her  seven children were all reminiscing about her attributes, and we each had a story about Mom’s oddball friends, her welcoming spirit, and her tolerance for human foibles.

As a storyteller, I rely on the example of her open-mindedness and open-heartedness to feed my creativity just as she, all those years ago, cheerfully fed anybody at risk for missing a meal. She was a mother-at-large, who said, “I care about you,” with a plate of lasagna and sheets that smelled of Yardley soap.

Have you known any mothers-at-large? Dads-at-large? Are there oddball friends in your life? To one commenter, I will send a $50 e-gift card.


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26 comments on “My Mother’s Table

  1. This story is told of my Irish great-grandmother. She gave a piece of hard tack and jam to a small beggar only to receive another knock with the return of the “wee boord.”

    And my mother telling us that hospitality wasn’t measured by the size of your house but the size of your heart.

    • My mom and dad were married “in secret,” in the church vestibule (Dad was not yet Catholic). Mom was in nurses’ training, and at that time, nurses were to be unmarried.(Erm…) Mom always said it’s not the size of the wedding that counts, it’s the size of the marriage.

  2. My Mom also took in strays. Not all the time but usually around the holidays. We had friends with no where to go for Thanksgiving (plus the usual folks) or one of my sisters college roommates who could’t get back home for Christmas. Mom felt comfortable welcoming people for holidays or Sunday dinners, which tended to be formal affairs. There were a few instances where it was a regular weeknight, but mostly for special occasions.

    With six kids, plus may grandma and grandpa, another grandma, and a great-aunt or two plus our parents, plus whatever other relative was around and who ever else was invited to come for a holiday; our dining room table needed to be–and was– huge!

    I’ve invited foreign medical students when my husband was a resident and have had In-Laws of In-Laws with no place to go for Christmas or Thanksgiving myself. I feel I’m carrying on another thing from Mom and it does feel good.

    • Once upon a time, I attended a Seder, where I saw the empty chair for the “uninvited guest.” And I thought, “Moms know no creed, race, nationality, or culture. Moms are moms are moms.” A good thought.

  3. I had a friend who made everyone feel welcome, was generous and anything she had was offered to others who had need of it. Graceful, gracious, and beautiful, she made others feel good about themselves with her attention. One thing that made her special was she had no showiness about her giving and she gave others the respect of accepting what they wanted to give her in return.

    I’d love to have a portion of her social ease and inherent generosity and it is nice to have people in my life that make me want to be more than my natural hermit-y self. I am definitely not the one inviting people over.

    • Sarah, I’m not the one inviting people over to my house, so I try to invite them over to my blog, my FB page, my historical romance world… its’ not the same. It’s not AT ALL the same, but I hope the impulse carries through.

  4. Aunt Grace, you brought tears to my eyes this morning as I read. This was Popo all over, and I wish I was more like her. And oh dear, how I miss her!

    Sometimes my introversion and awkwardness get in the way of the person I want to be.

    At my best, I follow her example as well as I can, in the ways that I can. She radiated a certainty that everyone mattered, everyone was important, everyone was worthy. And she had NO patience at all for others’ behavior that made somebody else feel less-than. I loved how fierce she could be in defending other people.

    Thank you for helping me to remember her today.

    • Mom and I did not always get along, but I’ve realized that at the level of values–inclusivity, compassion, honesty–she and I were in step. Because I did not know Stuey as a professional, I can’t say this for certain, but I think his colleagues would have said he exemplified the same values in his sphere.

  5. It’s funny but I see myself in your story of your mother. My children grew up with a variety of strays and I was known for baking a cake or pie in time for any of my friends that needed to come over to talk about their troubles. We had a teenager that came over to do a school project with my daughter that couldn’t find her mother and therefore moved in with us for six months. Around the same time I knew of a family from Bulgaria that were seeking asylum and were split up in custody, so I petitioned to have then stay with me while their case was being considered. So we wound up with eight of us in my 3-bedroom apartment, living on my meager salary and oh BTW I was a single mom of three myself. My poor children!

    • Kathy,
      Well, your children might have been poor in terms of new shoes, spiffy toys, or all the latest extracurricular activities, but they were wealthy in love. If the world is going to be saved, it’s not by a new X-box under the tree, but by generous hearts. Hats off to you and to the example you set.

  6. While my Mom didn’t invite everybody around, she did invite single men in my Dad’s Air Force group for holidays if they couldn’t go anywhere. But, as a girl who largely raised herself since her mother died when she was 3, she ended up with 5 children, 14 grandchildren, and, so far, 23 great-grandchildren. So we have big groups at holidays and it’s because of her (since we are very different people and I’m not sure we’d socialize much if not for her). While we moved around every couple of years (Air Force again), she was always quick to make friends so we saw by example that there was always some way to relate to other people. That’s also a generosity of spirit, just expressed differently. And we were exposed to more than a single culture since she didn’t just move to new places, but explored them and took us with her. So most of us are open-minded about other people.

    • Moving that often is really hard on most kids, but the average military kid ends up poised, tolerant, pragmatic and well traveled. Those are terrific assets, and I love that your mom got you off base. I don’t understand the people who get to the far corners of the earth and just look for the nearest Starbucks.

  7. My mom,
    She fed anyone that showed up at the table and I can’t remember all the times I ran all over town delivering food to the nuns across the street or to an old neighbor or a relative.

    • I hope our moms are not a disappearing breed, that “feeding anybody who shows up,” is still a thing, because I think that is the foundation for world peace. Or one of them.

  8. My mom is like this. She has always welcomed everyone and helping out friends. She is always making food for friends who are having a hard time. I try to be like her. I have a 9 year old daughter and I am always happy to have friends over. I like to say my home is “welcoming”. I don’t worry about them tracking in mud or dripping water from swimming in my floor. It will clean up and the kids are being kids! Nothing better than seeing their little faces so happy!

    • The house where all the kids feel welcome is usually also the house with the most tuned-in parents. That’s quite an asset as you move on from age nine.

  9. My mother went through several ‘stray’ phases. Maybe part of it was that there were more strays at certain times than others – my awareness as a child was that of a child, of course. When I was older we lived in a small town that kept the interesting strays away from where we would have run into them.
    When my kids were younger, they had certain friends who spent more time at our home than their own. Even though they are now young adults they know that they are still always welcome.

    • It’s odd that you mention that–spending more time elsehwhere–because I was one of those too, as an early adolescent. My godparents kept my horse on their farm, and EVERY weekend and ALL summer for several years, I was underfoot on the farm. What a gift to me, and to my parents, because they knew I was well cared for and having fun.

    • Parents who take off… one of my hot buttons. If you want to wreck a kid then look under “parental abandonment.” And your grandma doubtless loved you and tried her best, but that doesn’t compensate for negligent or absent parent.
      Hope things improved for you thereafter.

  10. I Remember my mum back in 1952 7 years after the war when certain items of food were still on ration.I was four at this time.Mum would help neighbours out with tea ,sugar coffee flour if she could.Mum was a good manager of making food go further.We often had people around for a bite to eat.Dad worked on a farm and brought vegetables home,we had plenty so mum would supply next door neighbours too.Dad always said “In hard times we should stick together and share”‘Mum agreed.I have tried to follow this through out my life but I have also seen some people grab everything when they don’t need to.Seems to me greed blinds a lot of people.When my daughter was a child she would often bring a small boy named David indoors saying that he had been sent out to play without breakfast and he was cold and hungry.”Mum will make you some hot porridge with golden syrup,sit down”.I can see him now sitting at the kitchen table with his nose running and bright red nose eating breakfast.My mum and Dads legacy lives on.Life in those years after the war here in Britain were not easy but their generation were tough and just got on with it and considered others around them.We are in a different time But we still have some good folk.

    • Thank you for looking after that kid. The kindness shown to us when we’re young (or the unkindness) can echo for decades. Mary Balogh has some memories of the rationing in Wales, and I think what we in the US don’t grasp is that it went on for years and years. The war left a footprint of hardship and devastation much larger than just the years of actual combat.

  11. My Mom is similar. She welcomes all the friends, and friends of friends, that any of her children, grandchildren or great-grands bring home, encouraging them to join her in the yard to work or relaxing around the table after a meal. All she skips at 84 are the really late night talks, unless she joins you at 6:30 when she gets up.

    • My mom became an early riser too. She was always an “up and at ’em” type and even in great old age she went walking all over the neighborhood. Unless there was Padres game on, though, she was early to bed.

  12. What a lovely reminiscence of your mom and early family life. I do love that about your writing, how you always show examples of intolerance and the upset it causes your main characters.

    • I noticed that particularly about Duncan Wentworth (When a Duchess). He was a long time coming to the realization that not everybody was as honorable as he is, and when he did have to face that reality, it knocked him sideways. Growing up is hard, to quote my daughter.