I didn't notice her at first.
It was Saturday morning at McDonald's. I was in the midst of cutting up pancakes, getting straws in milk and generally trying to keep our three sons quiet and (somewhat) under control.
And, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman, gazing at our table.
Her hair was white and wiry. Her skin was pale. Her eyes were hollow and surrounded by a shade of pink.
It looked like she was sitting with her husband and sons. You could tell she was hard-of-hearing and couldn't keep up with their conversation.
She was in her own silent world.
And so, her eyes drifted.
To our table.
And our three young, busy boys, all 4 years and younger.
At first, I thought the kids were bothering her.
But then, I looked a little closer.
And in her face, I saw something entirely different.
A softness in her expression.
A glimmer in her eye.
A fondness in her smile.
And then a rush came over me. And I realized something.
She was remembering.
She was remembering the days when she was a young mom. Frazzled and desperate and tired and cherished.
She was remembering what it felt like to be needed. Guiding, instructing, teaching, loving.
She was remembering her endless days with little boys. When time never seemed to stop. Not for showers or dinner or bedtime or sleep.
She was longing.
She was longing to be needed again. For diaper changes and boo-boo kisses and bedtime stories and lullabies.
She was longing to be touched. To be cradled in the sweet embrace of a toddler son. That tender little boy who believes she can do anything.
She was longing to nurture. To pick up a crying baby and be everything that he needs. To hold that warm, soft body and feel the weight of his head resting on her chest.
She was longing for the days when she was the most important woman in her sons' lives. Before school and jobs and families and wives. All of those things are wonderful. But when her son were young, she was the person for whom all things were possible. The most beautiful woman in their world.
And so, sitting in that chair, I felt her reminiscent admiration wash over me and recognized the unspoken beauty in my otherwise-mundane morning.
And then, I remembered that raising little ones really is magical.
A few minutes ago, it was just an everyday errand that was thankless and hard and messy. The milk spilled and the baby choked on a sausage chunk and the toddler wanted more pancake syrup.
But one day, I might be sitting with my grown sons at a table.
And I'll be gazing at that young mom who is disheveled and unshowered and trying to shovel cold eggs into her mouth and stop little hands from toppling her coffee.
And I'll wish I could go back.