Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Hero of the budget-friendly buffet

For the Gazette
Monday, November 14, 2022

I was ingesting the “complimentary continental breakfast” at a budget-friendly motel when traveling awhile back, and I was feeling about a “2” on a “1 to 10” good mood scale. Whatever the objective merits of the buffet might have been, it was only succeeding in pushing my mood down toward a “1.” I knew that, ideally and rightly, I should have been grateful to have enough food to fill my stomach, but how many of us are ideal and right all the time.

I sat in the back of the breakfast room, wanting just to read my newspaper and be left alone.

Before I had a chance to settle into my solitary confinement, a mother and her three children (girl about 7, girl about 5, boy about 3) sat down at the table next to me, having walked past a number of empty tables to get there. I figured that the mother had decided to sit in the back of the room so the kids’ frenetic energy and chattering would be least intrusive to adult breakfasters.

Right away, the three children, who were as excited about the choices in the breakfast layout as I was unenthused, began having disputes about taking food off each others’ plates. I was in no mood for rambunctiousness, so I let out a sigh big enough to give voice to the dire realization that I wasn’t going to be left alone to wallow in my funk.

The mother heard my sigh and immediately tried to settle the kids down. As she was doing so, I pulled back the curtain of my self-absorption, and actually saw her and the children for the first time. I got the sense that she was spending a lot of time trying to avoid, or responding to, sighs.

I knew at that moment she was not someone on a winning streak, not a mom blithely traveling to grandma’s, or wherever. I saw the high grade fever of a life crisis or the constant burn of poverty, or both. The writer Rosellen Brown used the term “a welfare mother’s eyes” in a short story of hers. I guess saw in that woman’s eyes a young mother trying to find her way across rough seas and do the next right thing for her children.

I kicked myself for my self-centered sigh and told myself not to show any more disapproval, no matter what sounds or objects came at me from their table. The woman had enough besides the motel’s food on her plate without my adding to the pile.

In the breakfast room, then later when I crossed paths with the four of them in the motel hallway, the mother looked like she could have used the help of a Border Collie to shepherd the kids around, but she was always patient and gentle and caring as she did so.

Sometimes a writer, at least this writer, try as they might, cannot come up with exactly the right word to capture and convey what they see. I thought of describing the mom’s mien as “dutiful” or “stoic,” but those adjectives, while apt, fall short, could seem too much like mere resignation. In keeping with Hemingways’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure”, I thought of “courageous.” But even that word fell short of what I saw.

Later that morning, I was in the motel parking lot at the same time as the mother, and I saw her corral the children into an old, beat-up van, and then lift the hood and perform what seemed like a regular routine with the engine to get it started. After she got the engine and the kids settled (no small task in either case), she sat in the driver’s seat and read over some papers. I imagined that the papers had to do with her itinerary for the day, where she had to go, who she had to see, to try to piece things together, to right the ship.

It occurred to me to walk up to the the young woman and tell her I admired her. More than that, I thought of offering her some money, to “give directly.” In this instance, however, my reticence won out over my inspiration, and I did not approach her. As I write this, I find myself resolving to make a Thanksgiving donation to an organization that supports families in crisis as a way of catching up with my not seizing that moment. If you are moved by this column to do likewise, my writing this will have served us both well.

After she’d put the papers down and driven off, the word I’d been searching for, the adjective I wanted to give to her, came to mind — “estimable,” worthy of great respect. Yes, that’s it. That’s what I saw when I looked behind the curtain.

And now, to that donation…

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.