69: The Memory Box

69: The Memory Box

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

The Memory Box

Leftovers in their less visible form are called memories. Stored in the refrigerator of the mind and the cupboard of the heart.

~Thomas Fuller

We were planning a celebration for my mother’s ninety-fourth birthday. After getting my ticket to fly from Arizona to Michigan, the next task was to figure out a present. Since my father’s passing, my mother had been making a concentrated effort to downsize. She loved her Hummel and teacup collection, but she had made it clear—no new ones! Jewelry was out. A gift certificate, maybe. But that didn’t seem quite right. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to celebrate ninety-four years!

A few days before my departure, as I sorted through clothes for travel, I found a silver dollar my mother had given me when I got my first car. My mother always gave us silver dollars to place in our car’s glove box for good luck. I smiled as I held the silver dollar, remembering the joy of my first car, a Volkswagen Beetle. How perfect that I had the coin to remind me of those good times.

Then it struck me—perhaps what we could give Mom was not a thing, but a feeling. A gift that would say she mattered, that she made a loving impression in our lives. We could each relate a treasured memory about her, and then place a dollar coin in a box to represent that memory.

The Wisdom of Mothers : The Memory Box 243

I floated the idea by one of my sisters, and she loved it. She volunteered to go to the bank and get twenty one-dollar coins. By the time I arrived in Michigan, she had selected a small teakwood box that had belonged to my mother—a perfect choice to hold the memory coins.

The night before the party, I sat on my sister’s porch with my daughter, who also flew in for the celebration, trying to decide which memories to share. My mother, a first-generation Greek immigrant, had passed on food traditions that we all continue today. Every Christmas, the Greek pasta dish, pastitsio, is a central part of the evening celebration meal. And there isn’t a dinner guest who comes to my home who isn’t served Kalamata olives and feta cheese as an appetizer. On special occasions, guests are treated to a Greek tradition that we like to call the “Opa cheese.” It is a dish, actually called saganaki, where cheese is melted in a pan, then covered in brandy and set aflame. The flames are celebrated with rousing cheers of “Opa,” then doused with a squeeze of lemon juice.

“It’s the koulourakias that are my favorite memory,” my daughter said.

“Oh yes,” I said, remembering back to the times when my children and I would spend hours with my mother, carefully forming the traditional Easter Greek cookies into circles or small braids. My children loved to pry open the small cans and add the sesame seeds and anise, bringing to life the unique Greek flavors in the shortbread dessert.

My mother’s recipe had been passed on to her by her mother, and included such vague directions as “combine five handfuls of flour with enough liquid to make the mixture pliable.” After I moved to Colorado, it took my mother and me a bit of trial and error to adapt my grandmother’s recipe to high altitudes.

Our early attempts looked like extremely fat fingers, still tasting good, but missing the delicate form of the true koulourakias. Eventually we got the modifications right, and the making of koulouakias became a tradition during her visits.

My daughter and I were still digging out old memories even as we drove to pick up my mother for the drive to the restaurant. As other members of the family came, some took me aside asking how this memory thing was going to work.

“We’ll figure it out as we go along,” I told them, sounding more confident than I felt. In fact, I wasn’t sure how it would go or even how she would react to this idea. My mother has always had a hard time accepting kind words. I was still unsure of what memory to share and worried all of us might end up repeating the same stories. Above all, I hoped we could all get into the spirit of it to make the celebration special.

Family members began to gather at the table. A corsage was pinned to my mother’s new dress and she seemed pleased with it. Once the food was ordered, I nodded to my sister as a sign that it was time to quietly pass out the coins, hopefully without our mom catching on. I presented the teakwood box to my mother and told her this was going to be her birthday gift. I opened it and showed her it was empty.

“An empty box?” she questioned, looking around at the family to see if this was a joke.

“Empty now, Mom, but each of us is going to tell a story, a memory that we’ve carried with us, from our lives growing up. And with each memory, there will be a coin added to the box,” I carefully explained.

My sister Mary Ann started, telling how she found a dress she really wanted when we were vacationing in our favorite spot, Myrtle Beach. “That dress made me feel so special, but I knew it was expensive.”

My sister continued, adding that when my mom brought my father back to see the dress, Mary Ann knew my mom had already talked my dad into buying it. She placed her coin in the box, thanking Mom.

After the first story, the ball started rolling. By the third memory, everybody was in full swing, laughing about trips to the World’s Fair in New York, camping trips to the lake, and our first attempts to make special Greek dishes. Once the twenty coins we brought had been added to the box, family members were searching purse bottoms for additional coins to add. It was amazing to hear what memories had stayed with us and what was special for each person. One good memory led to another.

The evening ended with laughter and silly photos. There were lots of hugs. On the drive back, my mother added a few of her own memories, telling my daughter and me stories we had never heard before.

“What a great life,” my daughter reflected.

“Yes, such a good life,” my mother quietly expressed.

Catching her tone of voice, I wasn’t sure if she was speaking to us, or perhaps to the spirit of my father who was so present in many of our stories. We all sat in silence for the remainder of the drive home, not wanting the moment to end.

My daughter’s time with us was short, her departure scheduled for the next day. On the way to the airport, we stopped at the independent living facility where my mother lives so they could have a few more minutes together. I tried hard to hold back my tears, knowing this could be their last visit.

Taking my daughter’s hand, my mother said, “At ninety-four, my time is short.” She pressed one of the coins from the memory box into my daughter’s palm. No words were necessary; we knew her intention. Remember that I mattered in your life.

The rest of my visit seemed to fly by. On the afternoon of my departure, I brought my mother a few items she had asked me to pick up for her. Entering the apartment, I noticed her sitting in my dad’s old chair, close to the window, looking out at the woods. In her lap sat the memory box.

“You know,” she started, still not looking at me, “I have been thinking about all the wonderful memories we shared at dinner the other night. This box, these memory coins are very special.”

“They were wonderful memories, weren’t they?” I added, agreeing with her.

Looking down at her box, it was a few moments before she spoke again.

Then she quietly said, “I’ve decided what I am going to do with the coins.”

Expecting her to say a trip to Macy’s or a luncheon out, I was surprised at what followed.

“I’m going to give them away,” she said, rocking the memory box in her lap.

At first I wanted to protest, confused by why she would choose to give away those coins that represented our memories, our lives together. Then she explained further.

“There are many people here who help me when you girls and my grandchildren can’t be here. These coins carry such special feelings, and I’m going to give them to people here who go out of their way to make my life better. I want to pass them on and keep those positive feelings moving forward.”

There was quiet between us for a few moments. I was stunned at first by her plan.

“What do you think?” she asked, looking at me.

I closed my eyes, felt the tears form and love deepen in my heart. Then, I rose and hugged my mother. “Perfect,” I told her. “Just perfect.”

~Diana Creel Elarde

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