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Several years ago, my friend, Sue, sent several friends and me a copy of former Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich’s Mother’s Day column. Schmich wrote that the only thing she wanted after her mother died was her mother’s bright yellow coat. That coat, she wrote, provided her a way of keeping her mother with her.

“Personal essence; that’s what many of us are seeking to preserve when we choose which of our parent’s belongings to keep,” she said.

Sue wrote that she has her mother’s soup ladle, a ladle that had been repaired time and again by her grandfather, that had served her family the homemade soup her mother made for every meal. Karen texted that she has her mother’s “fluff” bowl, which held the Christmas and Easter Jell-O made every holiday by her grandmother, then her mom, now herself. Diane texted that she still uses her mother’s 100-year-old porcelain-coated cast-iron frying pan.

A yellow coat, a soup ladle, a fluff bowl, a skillet. All loving reminders of a beloved mother.

As for me, I drew a blank!

When my sister and I went to our family home to get it ready for a garage sale after we moved our parents into a nursing home, I thought the experience would be traumatic. I had heard so many stories of families fighting over family treasures. But that didn’t turn out to be a problem for Jeanne and me. Basically, there weren’t many family treasures to fight over.

My mom was a dedicated shopper and a great bargain hunter who managed to always look stylish on a very limited budget, but her taste in clothes ran conservative. There wasn’t a treasured bright yellow coat in her closet. The only coat that Jeanne and I envied was the fur coat she had frivolously bought in her 20s. That coat was a major source of dress-up fun when we were girls. It may have ended its life cut into doll clothes or donated to Goodwill. It certainly wasn’t still in Mom’s closet.

My mother was an adequate cook, but it wasn’t a job that she loved. The soup I remember most was Campbell’s Bean with Bacon, served with a spoon, not a ladle. Like much of her generation, she was a fan of Jell-O salads. We didn’t, however, have a specific fluff bowl, although I’m pretty sure that we did occasionally have fluff. We did find the cast-iron skillet that Mom used regularly, but it went into the garage-sale pile and is now frying someone else’s chicken.

Jewelry? Clip-on earrings and a few costume necklaces.

Holiday decorations? I took a Christmas ornament of Mom’s that hung on the tree the last several years, but it was an ornament that I gave her after she became a grandmother. She decorated our trees with bright red balls that were nowhere to be found.

My sister, Jeanne, did take home Mom’s recipe box, although most of the recipes were clipped by dad, after he took over much of the cooking. (I did surreptitiously take Mom’s recipe for my favorite Heath Bar Coffee Cake when Jeanne wasn’t looking.)

I also took Mom’s sewing box. I don’t think, however, that it captures Mom’s essence, since sewing was one of those women’s jobs that she didn’t particularly like. Sewing on a button, hemming a skirt, those she could do. Anything more complicated went to my grandmother.

I’ve decided, however, that it’s not actually things that evoke the essence of a beloved parent. I may not have my mother’s coat or soup ladle or fluff bowl or skillet, but I feel the essence of my mother every day.

  • When I see the Heath bars in the grocery-store checkout lane.
  • When I rub her favorite Jergens lotion into my hands and smell that unique cherry/almond smell.
  • When I start to nod off on the couch watching TV at night.
  • When I see bright red balls on Christmas trees.
  • When my daughter, Johanna, and I gleefully and loudly sing off-key in the car.
  • When I notice the Bean with Bacon can at the soup aisle of my grocery store.
  • When I find a great bargain at TJ Maxx.
  • When I sit and reminisce and laugh with my sister.
  • When I spot the twinkle in the eyes of my children and grandchildren, so like the laughter in the eyes of their loving grandmother.

Those of us lucky enough to have been blessed with a loving mother carry her essence in our heart forever.

Ellen Harms is a volunteer board member at Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in Champaign.

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