The Sunday Edition·Personal essay

Lola's cup: How a mother's gift became a symbol of how to enjoy every last second

When she was a child, Patty Smith gave her mother, Lola, a small engraved tea cup for Mother’s Day. When Lola was dying, another cup became a symbol of how to enjoy every last second.

When she was a child, Patty Smith gave her mother, Lola, a small engraved tea cup for Mother’s Day. When Lola was dying, an espresso cup became a symbol of how to enjoy every last second. (Submitted by Patty Smith)

My first memory of making an occasion to celebrate my mother happened unexpectedly at the drugstore. It's where I went every week of my childhood for candy and chocolate bars.

Mom already celebrated each morning with a cup of coffee, her beautiful hands cradling the cup, her quiet pleasure spilling over onto me before she turned her attention to the day ahead.

I basked in her presence, but I'd never celebrated her. The idea that I should never really dawned on me. I just loved her as I breathed air.

But on this day, something out of my ordinary happened.

A large sign drew my attention from the candy shelves. It announced that Mother's Day was coming.

Underneath it, a whitewashed pegboard shelving unit was stocked shelf upon shelf with miniature white cups and saucers. Each saucer was rimmed in gold and decorated with tiny pink flowers.

'The greatest friend I ever had'

The matching cup, also edged in gold, was only slightly bigger than a large thimble. All of them identical, each sat set atop a simple wooden easel that propped the saucer up like a sail behind the cup.

Stepping in closer I noticed that a poem in matching gold script decorated each saucer. What's that about? I wondered. And this is where I found something that didn't just catch my attention … it tackled every tender thing in me outright.

To one who bears the sweetest name

And adds a lustre to the same.

Who shares my joy, who cheers when sad,

The greatest friend I ever had.

Long life to her, there is no other

Can take the place of my dear mother.

I read its Hallmarkian sentimentality as the perfect expression of my feelings for my very own mother as if it were written for me by someone who must have known us. Its simple rhymes entered my nine-year-old soul like a song. Best of all, I knew if I could just give it to my mother it would make her happy:

He wrapped it [cup] up and put it in a bag and handed it to me — a real wish granted in real time.- Patty Smith

I had exactly enough change, to the penny, to buy one. I carefully picked up a set and headed to the cashier who towered above me on a platform that overlooked the store.

I handed over my coins. He looked at me with what I now know to be tenderness for the utterly innocent and asked for an amount seven cents greater than the price tag. My face must have crumpled in bewilderment when he asked for more money, money I didn't have.

"That's the price with tax included," he said.

"What is tax?" I hadn't asked for it and I certainly didn't want it included.

A silence ensued as he considered what to do. We stared at each other briefly. Then, he wrapped it up and put it in a bag and handed it to me — a real wish granted in real time.

My mother loved it and proudly displayed it on an open shelf next to the kitchen window for years. She was dismayed when she accidentally broke the little cup while dusting but kept the saucer on display just the same.

When we moved houses, she kept it in a drawer, and I would come across it from time to time. At the time of its purchase, I had yet to finish my first decade; Mom was steering purposefully through her fifth. There was plenty of time yet for the saucer's toast and my wish to continue coming true.

Lola's 100th

Our luck held. Last October, she turned 100 and was present in every sense for her birthday party, still enjoying her coffee, basking in the attention bestowed by family and friends come from out of province for the occasion.

The truth is, we were doubly blessed by her longevity, as she came to live with my husband and me in her early 70s, after my father's death, to help in raising our two sons. She was a fantastic grandmother with creative flair for all kinds of things that made all of our lives richer. Most mornings she and I would have coffee together.

When Mom later began obliquely fretting about being institutionalized at the end of her life — she was by then in her 80s — I made her a promise, one that by good luck I was able to keep.

I had the privilege of caring for her in her last years at home. The last six months was an intense period. As she became increasingly frail, as her pleasures in doing had to be set aside for merely being, she never failed to express gratitude for what still remained. And one of the simple pleasures that elevated her spirit right up until she died on April the 4 came in the form of a cup of coffee, but not just any cup.

It was a godsend, this half-scale vessel of happiness.- Patty Smith

The time had come when she could no longer hold a regular cup. We used a spoon to deliver the sweet, warm liquid. But it was not the same.

And then, one morning, during mom's final weeks, In one of those rare moments when need presents itself and finds opportunity, I opened a kitchen cupboard and noticed a small cup from a seldom-used espresso set on the top shelf. It was a godsend, this half-scale vessel of happiness.

And just as another little cup had done nearly six decades beforehand, it gave Mom an unbroken hold on raising a toast to life once again.

The effort required to do this was challenging for her. But this small act of defiance against death's approach brought a smile to her lips. And that smile that is now mine to savour.

- Patty Smith