I met her for lunch on a Friday afternoon in mid-April. Our table, situated near a large glass window, brought sunlight and warmth into our meal. I sat facing the window with my ankles crossed beneath the chair. My cheeks absorbed the sunlight, becoming more florid than usual. I felt the warmth move past my cheeks, down my throat and surround each rib. For a moment I did not question anything. I was comfortable, accepting my life in this moment, accepting the space I occupied and the time in which it all occurred. As her intern, I was amazed by the fluidity between us. We each showed a curiosity toward each other, a desire to unearth the life prior to this moment. In a light, airy voice, like fluffing a bed sheet, she raised her tan arm and chimed for the waiter. She ordered for us in Italian. I listened with naturally envious ears while marveling at the red wine color on her fingernails as she pointed to the hummus and sprout salad we both decided on. Her hand jumped to the dessert section – chocolate truffles, cakes, and parfaits. Switching back to English she asked me if a glass of champagne would be to my liking. At first her inquiry surprised me. But then, remembering that Rome was outside, I nodded and a string of sì, sì, sì, hissed through my teeth. She smiled and handed the menu to the waiter. A few minutes later, our champagne arrived in thin oval glasses. We each took a deliberate, effervescent sip then she leaned down to reach her purse. From it she collected a laptop, a folder, and a pencil.
We began discussing the details of my internship with her travel agency: responsibilities and expectations, strategies and approaches. She helped me understand the role with clarity and encouragement, emphasizing to make this experience “my own”. I listened to her diligently and took notes, wishing that I could write her voice into each sentence. The beautiful sound she emitted, a product of being raised in Rome by an Indian mother. Unconscious of the shift, I began to keep track of her details in the margins of my notebook. I remember thinking how awful it would be to forget her beauty. I wrote lip freckle to remember the little brown spot in the center of her bottom lip. I wrote silky hair to remember its gloss and how she wore it parted on the side and tucked behind her soft, brown ear. Jewelry to remember her diamond studs and turquoise necklace that laid between her collarbones. She talked seldom with her hands but illustrated concepts, important or not, on a piece of scrap paper. I added speaks through pictures to my inventory of her details.
The conversation regarding my internship dissipated. We discussed and planned what was necessary and expected out of our lunch together. I began to ask her small questions – where she grew up, what college she attended, if she had brothers or sisters – peeking into her interior life with delicacy, trying to maintain the professional nature of our meeting while addressing the connection between us. She told me about growing up as an Indian woman in Rome. She described her mother, her siblings. She spoke of years stricken with difficulty and years plump with love and abundance. I learned about her daughter, her ex-husband, and a current boyfriend. She asked about my life as well. We spoke like this for a while – two women of different decades, different continents, different origins – communicating within the syncopation that this hour, this day, this womanhood granted us.
“Kelly, we are not the sadness of our parents,” she said. My eyes squinted. My lips fell soft. I was eager for her to continue. Before elaborating, she straightened the piece of paper in front of her and clicked the lead of a mechanical pencil.
“Look,” she said. “Each person has a sadness that they carry, even mothers and fathers.” I took a sip of champagne and watched her draw two stick figures.
“For some people it is abuse, for others it is alcoholism. But this is the sadness they bare. You cannot claim someone else’s sadness as your own. I wish someone had explained this to me at your age.” I was silent, taking in her words one by one, trying to orient myself around this enlightenment. It was the first time I felt like a grown woman. It was the first time I felt confident in my ability to care for myself. My mind felt light, detached from anything other than this moment. With my eyes on the paper, I watched her draw a line extending from the two stick figures.
“You see here, Kelly, this is your life,” she said with her finger grazing the line. “You move through your parents. They teach you and love you and provide for you but ultimately you will move beyond them, beyond their sadness and a life of your own will begin.” I loved how she used my name. It made it seem like her words were waiting for me. Like this lunch together was a dot on a timeline that could not be ignored or diverted. I began to write down key phrases to help me recollect her speech. Not your parents’ sadness. Move through them. Your own life will begin.
The waiter brought our salads to the table and collected the champagne glasses stained with lipstick. I was still searching for an adequate way to show my appreciation for all that she had shared with me. It was the first time since joining her at the table that I felt disoriented. I was ruffled by the immense weight of her words. Their truth and substance. Maybe my silence was the most accurate response. After all it was the only thing I could offer. Anything else would have been a twisted version of how her words truly affected me.
We ate our lunch. She took small bites, dipping the contents of her fork in hummus. I did the same. We agreed on the food’s high quality and the café’s prompt service. Conversation characteristic to women ensued. We compared the color of our nails. I asked if she had been shopping lately. She commented on the sturdiness of my tote bag.
We stacked our salad bowls after finishing and placed our crumpled napkins on top. Agreeing that dessert was necessary, we ordered a brownie to split and two more glasses of champagne. Through the window I could see a pink hue filled the sky; the afternoon was collapsing into evening. Many hours had passed since our meeting began. The brownie arrived. We ate it from the same plate, taking turns with each bite.
“I am trying to be mindful,” I finally said. “Even something as simple as making my bed can be an exercise of mindfulness.” She looked at me with all the sensitivity of a mother. She cared about me, I could feel it. She wanted what was best for me and I knew it.
“Kelly,” she began. “My daughter is my whole world. Everything I do revolves around her. And I want it this way. It is a cream for my soul.” From the way these words unfolded, slowly and deliberately, I gathered her intention. A cream for the soul. A place of safety within ourselves, a way of mothering ourselves in times of need. It is the ability to respond to what your body needs in all capacities: mentally, emotionally, physically. We must be aware of what the cream is and when we need to apply it.
“As you know,” she added. “The cream does not always work accordingly. That is why, whenever someone asks me how I am doing, I say ‘In this moment I am…’ because we are always changing. You are not the same person as you were in the taxi on the way here. You will not be the same person when you go to bed. And that’s the beauty of the cream…it doesn’t do through change like we do. It is constant.” In my notebook, I added: in this moment, cream for the soul, always changing.
As the sun reached its highest point that evening, we finished the brownie and champagne. She began to reiterate important dates and projects to keep in mind regarding my internship. I read through my notes to ensure that I had everything recorded. We gathered our purses and jackets and headed to the register to pay. Upon exiting the café, I checked the time on my phone, 6:04 pm. Our lunch had lasted three hours. Before departing, I thanked her for meeting with me, thanked her for the conversation and the internship. She opened her arms to me. As we hugged she thanked me for my company and sensitivity. She expressed her excitement toward working with me.
“We’ll be in touch soon,” she said. I watched her walk toward the parking lot. Catching a glimpse of my reflection in the café’s door, I examined myself to see what she was seeing this whole time. She waved to me as she drove away.
In the taxi on the way back to my apartment, I reread my notes from the afternoon. Their weight seemed less prominent without her presence, but I still valued each word. I could still hear her voice. I still remembered her illustrations. Looking to my right, out of the taxi’s lowered window, I felt the warmth of sunlight come back into my cheeks. And mindfully, I began to notice all the ways, big and small, I had changed from that afternoon with her.