Strays – Caitlin Benson Hartford, daughter

My mother took in strays. Not dog and cat strays, the house already had two or three much-loved cats and she would never have risked disturbing the feline harmony with an outsider.  No, she took in human strays. I don’t mean down-and-outs; Mom’s strays had perfectly nice families somewhere else. They were new arrivals who had just opened that funky store that caught her eye, international students far from home, and folks whose creative endeavors as writers, artists, or filmmakers my mother championed. And yes, some were hitchhikers encountered on the side of Hwy 101 that ran through our Marin County town. It was the early 1970s when hitchhiking, although lawfully prohibited in California since 1959, was nonetheless common. She welcomed them to her nest where her own brood of three daughters lived, aged tiny to mid-teen. In our house they found a place at the table and perhaps a couch for the night. I am the youngest and this was the age where my own memories are few and hazy and primarily enhanced by family stories of what really happened. I do recall quite well, however, the young man she found along the highway as he tried to make his way penniless to Los Angeles to search for his sister after being separated through different foster care placements. He repaid my mother’s generosity by not bothering her for a lift back to the edge of town the next morning, instead letting himself out before dawn with my middle sister’s piggy bank.  

Some might ask, “Well, what did you expect?” and the answer would be “the best.” My mother saw and expected the best in people. Not naively in a Pollyanna way, but because she took the time to listen and find that interesting aspect of their lives, recognizing kindness, talent, or warmth in just about anyone. She’d come home from, well from anywhere really, and recount the details of the new dental hygienist, the woman working the counter at the art gallery, or the waiter who had an interesting accent. The sisters and I would roll our eyes a bit and say, “Save the details, Mom. We’ll meet them at Thanksgiving.” And while we were teasing her, it was not an unimaginable circumstance. Many of my mother’s strays came for a meal and over time were woven into the fabric of our family such that we now have sisters and brothers whose birth certificates would beg to differ. Not all her strays were adopted; some went their own way after a spell, their presence memorialized by a piece of their art on the wall, a book, or a favorite dish. I don’t remember who Bob was, but fifty years later Bob’s Casserole remains a family staple.  

Simply, my mother recognized value and beauty in those near her and made sure they knew it. Ninety-one years’ worth of people are fortunate to have been folded into her life. I count myself eternally thankful to be one of them.