11 May 2012, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 16 Comments.
Every year, on the last day of school, my mother would leave work early, collect me at Scenic Hill Elementary School, and we would go on a special outing. The only thing extravagant about the experience was having my mother all to myself for an entire weekday afternoon. Usually we went no further than the u-pick berry farm 10 minutes from our house; while nowadays it might qualify as a child labor violation, there was something novel and thrilling about squatting in a dusty berry patch and plucking bright red fruit straight from the plant. After eating my weight in strawberries we would take our haul, still warm from the fields, home, and my mother would make strawberry freezer jam that we enjoyed all year. She didn’t mind if I perched on the counter next to her and continued my strawberry-eating frenzy.
One year, my mother said I could invite a few friends along for a celebratory picnic in the park. We piled into the back of our chestnut Mercury Grand Marquis, my mom singing the song she always sang on this day – School’s out, school’s out, teacher let the fools out! – and set off for Earthworks Park, acres of undulating green hills and swampy moats just a few minutes down the hill from our elementary school. That spring my mother had bought an old-fashioned hand-crank ice cream machine at a garage sale. A metal cylinder sat inside a bright blue bucket; a “plank,” with a crank attached, sat astride the bucket. Some combination of rock salt and ice was packed into the bucket to keep it cool while it spun. I had never seen anything like it (I’m sure I thought that ice cream came in waxy cartons from the grocery store), and it was akin to picking strawberries: novel and thrilling. I couldn’t wait to try it out.
My mother explained to us girls that it was a lot of work to make homemade ice cream, and that we each needed to take turns spinning the crank. At first we fought over the machine, jockeying for position. But our little girl arms quickly grew tired, the novelty swiftly waning, and soon my mom was left to finish the lion’s share of the work. I remember prancing barefoot through grass, laughing, the late afternoon glinting down on our party, the cares of the school year having been cast off, the promise of summer stretching ahead. In my rapture I caught a glimpse of my mother, furiously cranking the handle, knowing in an instant how much she loved me.
I don’t remember much else about that day. I don’t remember who the other girls were, or what we ate for lunch. But I remember the wonder we all felt when my mother lifted the lid on the cylinder to reveal its contents, cream and sugar having been transformed into perfect vanilla ice cream. She might as well have been a magician, someone who could spin something so simple into pure magic, the resulting sum much greater than its parts. As she scooped the ice cream into Styrofoam bowls and drizzled it with Hershey’s chocolate syrup from the can, I remember how proud I felt that she was my mother.
Although these last-day-of-school outings didn’t last many more years, my mother was always full of these small kindnesses. She helped me strap in all of my Cabbage Patch Kids across the back seat of our car without a hint of exasperation. Once we planted an avocado pit in a ceramic flower pot just to see if it would grow (it didn’t). In high school, she would sometimes slip into play rehearsal with a sandwich, materializing out of thin air. She was famous for creating visually stunning desserts for sheer dramatic effect. One time we went to an Italian restaurant and I admired the real fruit containers that the gelato was served in. As a surprise, my mother stayed up after I went to bed, meticulously hollowing out oranges as a vessel for homemade orange sorbet. Even as I reached adulthood these small kindnesses never stopped. They just changed. No matter how taut the string between us stretched, each time I was reminded anew that my mother would always be my mother.
I remember reading in a book on death and dying that grief has a way of sneaking up on you in unexpected ways. Mother’s Day, especially now that I’m a mother of my own, washes over me like a gentle wave. (For years I’ve marked the day by sending cards to other special mothers in my life, and it is enough.) The same goes for my mother’s birthday. But when I think about my mother turning the crank on an ice cream machine, or hunched over the stove making strawberry jam, or the thousands of other small kindnesses that she performed as my mother – the everyday things that silently communicate, you matter – I am toppled by the wave and drowned by grief. In death as in life, the things that leave the lasting impression, the moments that persist long after the day is lived, are the times when we are aware that someone is allowing us a peek behind the veil of the mystery and wonder of this world. I am grateful that my mother showed me a little of her magic, and is inspiring me to do the same.
Whether you are a mother, love a mother, or miss your mother, I hope you find a way to celebrate a special mother in your life this weekend with a little bit of everyday magic and wonder.
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