I met Mela through her son, Relja, who I befriended when he attended my high school during his Junior Year. While we wore the typical American casual clothes, Rela would wear slacks and tweed blazers. Each time I saw him walking through the halls, he was always alone.
One day I saw him in the library reading a poetry book by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. My mother had taken me to see his play, Faust, so I was somewhat familiar with his work. It seemed to me that Relja needed a friend so I approached him and started to discuss his book, and that was the beginning of our friendship.
“This is the sacrifice my mother is making for me,” he told me in his Yugoslav/British accent. “It hurts me that she is now the servant to another family.”
A few weeks later, Relja took my mother and me to meet his mother. Her grey hair was tied up in a perfect bun. She wore a cashmere sweater and tailored wool skirt. What captivated me most was her warm, inviting smile. I saw in that smile that, despite her humiliating circumstances, she refused to let them define her.
My mother and I became very close to Mela. She was so happy to have a friend in my mother to take her to museums and concerts. She would come to our home often and I would sit for hours encouraging her to tell me stories about her life.
I will never forget one trip to Paris when I visited Mela in her simple apartment. She was so happy to see me that she started to cry as she hugged me. “Come sit,” she said taking my hand, “I have made lunch for you.”
Mela was well into her early 80s on that visit and I will always remember the care she took to lay out a perfectly ironed table cloth over her small table. She proceeded to take from her fridge a plate she prepared of smoked salmon, cheese and a large salad. “Please eat,” she said, as she passed me a piece of warm baguette.
We ate the meal very slowly while we caught up about our families and ourselves. I remember how tranquil I felt to sit with her and how I never wanted that afternoon to end.
I will always remember the love she put into that simple meal. She couldn’t have given me a bigger gift and this is the gift I wanted to pass on to you: that our meals must be prepared with loving care.
Every action Mela took was with grace. In contrast, most of us rush around our days, gulping down food, most of which is take-out. So many of us mothers have such little time to prepare meals that we throw something together as almost an afterthought. No wonder why our kids don’t enjoy eating it. It’s also no wonder why so many of us are over-weight. We lack mindfulness and, as a result, feel off balance and often out of control.
Mela died a few years ago, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her and express my gratefulness to this truly great woman who lived a noble life, despite significant adversity. She could have easily decided to victimize herself, but instead she chose to bask in the love she felt for so many of us.