Sometimes a few words can say it all

I love Mom. She is pwitty. She wockse sowe hord. I will nevr frgit you.

- John Peter Chirila, 1989

My son was almost 7 years old when he wrote those lines on a blank Rolodex card, using his very best printing. That blue card with his uneven, penciled words was his Mother's Day gift for me, and it lies in a cardboard box along with letters, drawings, and notes from my daughters.

On the side of the box, in big red letters, I've written "FROM THE KIDS." If there is an emergency, that box will go with me, before the deed to the house and the insurance policies. Those I can replace.

Every May about this time, I add the latest Mother's Day cards to my collection. But first, I sit cross-legged on the floor of our bedroom closet, the cardboard box before me, and take out my treasures, one-by-one. I admire anew the earnest drawings from the kids' pre-writing days, place my hand over their little plaster-of-Paris handprints, read their notes and letters. If I close my eyes I can almost hear their child-voices whisper, "You're the best mommy in the world."

I feel like an archeologist as I carefully sift through the box, the strata of mementos a record of my life as a mother. At the bottom are crayoned family portraits on sturdy brown paper - stick figures of a mommy, a daddy, and a child; then two children, and later three; Misha, our blustery Australian shepherd, was added to the portrait in 1987, the same year that the daddy stick figure appeared less and less frequently and eventually disappeared altogether.

Here and there in the box are assorted handmade coupons, usually promises to work around the house: an hour's worth of dusting, promises to clean their rooms, take out the garbage, walk the dog. The coupons for intangible things still tug at my heart: I am sorry you are sad, Stephanie wrote on Mother's Day when she was 9, so here is a coupon good for free hugs, anytime. Jenny, the oldest, acutely aware of my struggle as a single mother, wrote, You don't have to give me more allowance just because I am older. Happy Mother's Day. John's coupons were more practical: Good for one hour of peace and quiet.

As their printing turned to cursive, the Mother's Day cards became more insightful and reflected my efforts to keep our little family whole: Thank you for having three jobs, Mom ... I hope you can get more sleep and not work so hard ... Thank you for coming to all my games and cheering me on ... Thank you for making us laugh. I don't remember laughing very much in those years as a single parent, but if my mommy report card said we laughed, then we must have. Thank goodness.

Later, of course, when I married Ron and our family became whole again, there were funny cards, like the one where John, in college now, cut my face out of a photograph and glued it over a cartoon woman's face on a card that said, "Amazing Mom Has Only Two Hands!" Below the cartoon John wrote, Thanks for doing your best to make everyone happy. One day a year, moms can do no wrong; our children actually recognize what we do - or try to do - for them. And it feels great.

The stick figure family portraits, pencil and crayon drawings, tissue paper butterflies, macaroni sculptures, handcrafted coupons, and homemade cards are gone now, replaced with carefully selected Hallmark cards that say grown-up things like, "No matter how busy you are, Mother, you always have time to listen with your whole heart." But I still look for the handwritten notes inside that chronicle our lives: Thank you, Mom, for helping me decorate my apartment ... Your advice is always right, even if I don't always want it. I appreciate the sacrifices you've made for us - the ones I know about and the ones I don't.

I carefully put all the drawings, and cards, and letters back into the cardboard box for another year, reassured that I have done something right in my life. And I've started to fill another box with drawings and notes, colored macaroni glued to bright construction paper, and crayoned portraits of our growing family. On the side of the box, in big red letters, I've written, "FROM OUR GRANDCHILDREN."

Marilee Swirczek lives in Carson City. She is a mother of three, stepmother of two, mother-in-law of three, grandmother of four, and "second mom" to a few more.


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