Musings + Essays

What I Have Learned from My Mother.

By: Jen Shoop

There is a lovely little poem by Julia Kasdorf titled “What I Learned from My Mother.” Much of it centers upon a mother’s role as salve and caretaker, and my favorite bit runs as follows:

“I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand 
in case you have to rush to the hospital 
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants 
still stuck to the buds.”

This is very much my mother, whose ministrations run from the shockingly specific and intimate (picking up colace for me after mini was born, when I would rather have died asking anyone for such an embarrassing favor) to the knee-bucklingly generous (flying to Rome to hear me read a paper as a graduate student). This passage nails her comfort in gestures of care-taking big and small–and her preparedness, speed, and single-mindedness in accomplishing them. And, bonus: it references a peony, and my mother cherished her peony bushes in our old stone house on Tilden Street in Northwest D.C. so much so that the image of a peony bush and the black ants that tended to burrow into it vibrate through much of my childhood nostalgia, like the focal point on a hand-stitched quilt.

But there are many things I have learned from my mother, setting aside her deep kindnesses as my caretaker and guardian–too many things to enumerate, or to attempt to–but I will share a few today:

To write a thank you note immediately after a gift is received.

To be specific in said thank you note, mentioning where you have placed the gift or why, exactly, you love it and how it will be used.

To stock up on scarves — endlessly versatile and timeless.

To listen, fully.

To keep an extensive back-stock of household essentials: toilet paper, paper towels, tissues.

To pray, often.

To keep snacks and a notepad in your bedside table drawer for middle-of-the-night micro-crises.

To read every day.

To buy butter in bulk on sale and keep it in the freezer. (It thaws beautifully.)

To tell yourself, when you think you can’t: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” This was a trick she used when toilet-training us (the power of positive thinking!) that I still conjure in moments of duress.

To give other people the benefit of the doubt.

To tilt your head and say, firmly, “Jennifer” when you are about to say something important so that your daughter has a mild heart attack and knows you mean business. (This works — mini will drop what she’s doing and look up like a dear in headlights when I’ve used this voice with her.)

To keep tissues in my purse.

To clip coupons and hunt for sales.

To say “I love you” as often as your children can stand it.

This last one, maybe, the most powerful — as I find myself drawn to repeated affirmations as I attempt to parent my own children. I know that saying “I love you” is difficult for some people, and is not the lingua franca in the culture of some families. But it has always felt easy for me because love was so amply given and volubly communicated by my mother. It is the coda of all phone conversations, the casual good-bye tossed over shoulders on the way out the front door, the unthinking accompaniment to “good night.”

I still learn much from my mother — including, recently, how to calm myself while whizzing through the city alone in a cab, thinking I was going to deliver my son six weeks early — but, aside from the beauty of her frequent “I love yous,” I marvel over the fact that I have learned that I am never too old to need her.

Post Scripts: Mother’s Day Gifts.

Per usual, I aim for gifts under $100. I am always astounded by mother’s day gift guides where the prices drift into the multiple hundreds. I am either stingy or those guides are impractical. Either way, a couple of items I would recommend for a beloved mother or mother-like figure:

+For the beach babe or gardener: this elegant sunhat or this open-weave basket.

+For the style maven: these cateye shades from one of my favorite non-designer eyewear labels, these earrings, or this scarf, which I own in a different colorway and never cease to find a trillion ways to wear.

+For the flower lover: this headband (I had to buy it for my mom. It is so her!) or this blouse (under $100 with promo code currently running).

+For the interior design guru: these candlesticks (swoon — or these vintage D. Porthault ones!!!, slightly over the $100 budget) or this cabbage platter.

+For the baker: this cake dome and/or Christina Tosi’s new cookbook. (Or maybe accompany one or the other with a couple 6×3″ cake pans, which are almost always the size called-for by those fancy baking books. I used these exact pans when making our Easter cake this year. BTW, for those asking, the recipe is here.)

+For the self-care goddess: Summer Fridays R&R mask or Chanel baume essentiel.

+For the sentimental: a personalized bracelet with a child’s name on it (or this one).

+For the foodie: these frozen croissants (they are quite good — you let them proof at room temp overnight and then bake them off in the morning), a bundle of Afeltra bronze-cut pasta (if you’ve not tried high-end dried pasta, you’ve not yet lived — it’s a totally different beast), or a delivery from Levain cookies.

+Over $100, but I carry this tote with me everywhere these days, and it reminds me of my mom.

+Anything here.

Upgrade Picks.

In case you are, in fact, more generous than I am — or Mr. Magpie is reading…HA!

+Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra bracelet.

+Hunting Season bag.

+My favorite sneaks in a fresh new colorway.

+Sally King Benedict painting.

+Floral jammies.

+These silk loafers.

+A vintage Hermes scarf.

+A Le Lion monogrammed sweater.

P.S. Practical advice on preparing for motherhood.

P.P.S. What have you done right as a mother?

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13 thoughts on “What I Have Learned from My Mother.

  1. Your work is being plagiarized by a fake account on Facebook. I won’t publish the details here, but someone is shamelessly passing off these reflections as her own.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I am so glad I show my mother love throughout the year with penpaling being my favourite mode of communication for this sort of thing. You never know and I never want to regret not having said I love you one too many times.

  3. Oh wow, this resonated. I sent the link to my mom saying I feel like I could have written this myself (not actually – I don’t have your way with words, ha!), and she replied, “I am crying.”

  4. Such a sweet ode to your mother! And I agree with you re: the gift guide pricing – very often, my mother tells me she doesn’t want much more than a card, claiming she has enough things (the baby’s artwork is coming in very handy! Makes great cards!), but I like to get her something small anyways. (This year it’s a framed silhouette of the baby which I had done when we were in Charleston.)

    Two other mother’s day suggestions: “The Art of Flora Forager” for a mom who likes art/flowers (purchased this for my mom’s recent birthday to rave reviews – I got her ABC book for my daughter and she loves it) and the children’s artwork gift kit from Cece DuPraz. I really want the latter but may wait until my daughter’s drawings become a little more intentional (though there would be no better way to capture her first scribbles).

    1. Ooh, love both of these suggestions! Thanks! Had not heard of that Cece DuPraz gift — so sweet.


  5. I love how you describe the deep love and appreciation you have for your mom — it reminds me of my own relationship with my mother. She is my best friend and my north star.

    I am with you on a rough guide of $100 or slightly less for mother’s and father’s day gifts, even though my parents are priceless and they deserve untold sums for putting up with me and financing my entire life through college. This year I gave my mom her gift a bit early, as she’s going to be out of the country on Mother’s Day — she’s a runner and loves Outdoor Voices leggings, so I got her a fresh pair. 🙂

    Can’t wait to hear your picks for fathers later in the spring … that’s always a tough one for me! My dad is one of those people that buys things for himself when he needs them, making it hard to find gift opportunities!


    1. Aw, thanks. Best friend and north star just about capture my mom 🙂 She is my go-to for every little last thing.

      AHHH DAD GIFTS. The hardest. My Dad is actually impossible to shop for. Will need to put some elbow grease into that post…ha!

    2. Hahaha, no pressure there! Just curious to hear what you might come up with. Also, I just realized that I wrote that without thinking about the fact that you’re going to have your hands full around the time that Father’s Day posts will be going up … so seriously, do not worry about it! xx

  6. I’m reading the post on my way into the city from the North Shore and it’s breaking my heart. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I learned from my mother, who was an amazing woman and who sadly died five weeks so before my wedding and before my son was born.

    I went to a boarding school (by choice) and loved it, but I’ve been thinking lately about what I missed out on during my teenaged years while away at school and it near my mother. Especially as she died at such a young age, and when I was 27, I wish I’d had those four years with her. Sometimes I pick up my phone in the afternoons, when we’d speak, intending to call her and remembering that I can’t. I wonder what I would have learned from her during those years, and in college, if I’d been at home with her. Did I miss out on critical lessons because I wasn’t there to learn them?

    She was a joyful woman–she joked constantly, even though she had MS and my dad was/is active duty army and was deployed 9 times (for a year each time) in 15 years. I don’t remember her ever complaining. She was a very faithful Catholic and went to Mass every day, or listened when her disease progressed. She loved me and my siblings and tried to give us he best life she could. She always told us that she loved us–it was how she ended every conversation.

    I learned so much from her but I wish that I could still learn from her–I miss her every day!!!

    1. Oh – Sarah! This was so poignant to read and I could feel how much you miss your mother. I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds like she was a bright, loving woman. Thanks for sharing a little bit about her today. We’ll all be thinking of her!


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