Notre Dame. Our Mother.

Mom’s return to college in her 40s, an unearthed grotto and a story she can’t stop telling

Author: Madeline (Lewis) Infantine ’17

I surveyed her West Quad dorm room: the shower caddy devoid of scum, the bed comforter neatly tucked, the laundry hamper empty of dirty clothes. It all seemed so perky and vulnerable, just like our new Notre Dame student, who sat on the bed as we stood in the doorway, doing our very best to draw out the goodbye.

We told her that she could call us anytime and that she could always come home for dinner or for the night if she got too homesick (one of the perks of being South Bend locals). And we could come to her, too! I fantasized about mother-daughter lunches at Modern Market, where we’d share avocado toast and she’d divulge stories about her friends and her classes.

I know this is a typical tableau, a scene that unfolds in dorm rooms each and every year. But here’s the thing: in the aforementioned mother-daughter pair, I’m the daughter. This is the story of what it was like when my mom went to college.

Perhaps “college” is a little imprecise. In the summer of 2017, my mom moved into McGlinn Hall to begin her Master’s in Educational Leadership through the Remick program. But for all intents and purposes, this was the period of my mom’s life in which she most lived into the identity of an undergraduate student. My mom’s actual undergraduate years were spent commuting home on weekends. Growing up, my brothers and I could not be regaled with even a single story from her college years. Rest assured, she more than made up for this during her time as a Notre Dame student. And since she just so happened to do this in her 40s, rather than her 20s, I got a front row seat.

When my brother graduates from Notre Dame in 2023, every member of my immediate family will hold a degree from Notre Dame. This fact, coupled with the fact that we live close enough to campus to hear the roar from the stadium on our front doorstep, perhaps conjures visions of a house with a big ND flag out front and a family dog named Rockne or Sorin. But our dog’s name is Daisy and our two-story brick house is unbedecked by any such flag. And this is largely because of my mom, who grounded our family in Notre Dame apathy. That is, until she became a Notre Dame student herself. 

No longer neutral about Notre Dame gear

She bemoaned the complications game-day traffic created for her weekly grocery store run. If she happened to have her arm twisted and found herself at a tailgate alongside my Notre Dame-loving dad, she’d be dressed in her signature head-to-toe black, emphatically pronouncing that she didn’t like to wear Notre Dame gear (or, for that matter, Notre Dame colors).

And yet, I swore I saw her tear up at my own Notre Dame freshman Welcome Weekend when the marching band played the fight song — and I don’t think it was just because we were about to say goodbye. But this is only something I remembered while working on campus the summer after my graduation, while I watched my mom become a Notre Dame student herself.

I watched her proudly tote her student ID, generously offering to buy her classmates candy from The Huddle (and subsequently realizing how quickly one can run out of flex points). I ran into her in Duncan on a Sunday morning; she was sporting an ND baseball hat and banging out a paper due at midnight. She’d inherited my college backpack. I spotted its brown polka-dots across South Quad, at the dining hall, down by the lake. Heck, I even ran into her at the ’Backer, where she was belting out “Dancing Queen” and her classmates kept saying to me, “Isn’t your mom the coolest?”

I realized that I was watching something crazy happen: I was watching her fall in love with Notre Dame, pretty much head over heels. But more than flex points, or ’Backer drink tickets, or a student ID, the sign of this love was the way my mother started to love Our Lady. I knew it was real when my mom had her own grotto story, and when she wanted to share that story as much as possible with others.

The Remick Program is usually a cohort of 10 to 15 students. My mom’s cohort was closer to 40, so they were divided into groups. This story is about my mom, Ana Maria, and one of her fellow group members, Mindy.

My mom’s group became so close that they all flew into South Bend early in advance of their last summer together. Mindy flew in the earliest, so she volunteered to drive with my mom to pick up members of their girl squad who were arriving in Chicago. They talked about a lot of things, but for the purposes of this story, what matters most is that they talked about Mindy’s new role as an assistant principal at a Catholic grade school in Florida. In particular, they talked about the text messages she kept getting as my mom drove: pictures of a run-down garden that had been found at the back of the school’s property. A student had decided to take on the revitalization of the garden as his senior project, raising money to clear away tons of debris. For some reason, what they found was something that looked a whole lot like a grotto. Mindy had heard that the neglected space had once been dedicated to a student who had passed away, but no one at the school knew anything more. Both Mindy and my mom wondered why it had been neglected for so long.

Remick Group
A close-knit group gathers at Notre Dame’s Grotto, not the only that features in Mom’s college story.

But this story isn’t just about my mom and Mindy. It’s about my mom and one of her dearest South Bend friends, M.J., too. M.J.’s husband, Dom, teaches at Notre Dame. M.J. had been telling my mom that someone in the Remick program had started working at Dom’s old high school. When they got together to celebrate Dom’s new book on the patio at Rohr’s, they all realized that this someone was, in fact, Mindy. My mom told him about the garden and how Mindy had described it as a grotto.

That makes this story not only about my mom and Mindy and M.J. and Dom, but also about Dom’s brother. Because when my mom mentioned that the grotto had been originally dedicated to a student, Dom replied, “I know — that student was my brother.” That student was Ovide. Ovide battled brain cancer throughout high school. When he passed away, Dom’s family donated money to build the garden in his honor. And it was a grotto: Notre Dame’s had long been a beloved space for the family.

My mom called Mindy right away: “I have a story about your grotto,” she said to her on the phone. Mindy told her that there was just one part missing. That senior, who had taken on fundraising to revitalize the grotto? He’s now a student at Notre Dame.

For those counting along at home, that makes this a story about my mom and Mindy and M.J. and Dom and Ovide. About a current Notre Dame student, a Notre Dame professor and two newly minted Notre Dame alumni. About a one-seventh scale likeness of a Lourdes grotto in South Bend, Indiana, and an even-smaller likeness in a cleared orange tree grove in Florida. Which really makes this a story about Mary, Notre Dame, Our Mother — about how lucky we all are to be under her mantle.

This is now the story that my mom tells. She is excited each time she passes Mary atop the Golden Dome, whom she affectionately greets as “the Big M.” For the first time in my life, I get to know each time that my mom is praying to Our Mother for me, since it’s not uncommon for our family group text to light up with photos of candles she’s lit for us at the grotto. 

She proudly wore navy and gold for her graduation, and I’m genuinely worried that she doesn’t take her Notre Dame Alumni shirt off long enough to wash it. She wears a Mary medal every day around her neck — a gift from my brother on her graduation.

She tells the grotto story to teachers at her school, to my family, to her friends. The story of Notre Dame, Our Mother, has become one of her favorites.

And that’s the story of what happened when my mom went to college.

Madeline Infantine recently moved back home to South Bend. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Miami University and an M.T.S. from Boston College.