y twin sister Martha can’t remember how the idea of the Thank You house tumbled into her head 25 years ago, but it began the day she happened to see a plain wooden house sitting on a shelf in a store.
That happened a few weeks after her husband died of prostate cancer. Just 44, she was left alone to raise their four daughters aged 15, 13, 11 and 8.
But she knew that plain, foot-high wooden house with six open shelves and topped with a chimney would be the perfect Mother’s Day gift for my mother, who, with my father, had been invaluable support as Pat’s life flickered like a candle and finally went out. She knew she could find just the right tokens of gratitude with which to fill it.
Martha and Pat lived an hour east of my parents’ Cleveland home. On countless weekends during his three-year illness, the family trooped in to stay while Pat was treated at the Cleveland Clinic. My mother cooked for them. She washed and ironed their sheets. She and my father listened and prayed, and so much more.
When Pat entered the clinic for the last three weeks of his life, Martha left her girls with my parents so she could sit at Pat’s bedside. She was there when he died at 3:45 a.m. April 10, 1994.
As Mother’s Day approached, Martha decorated each room of that wooden house with mementos of my mother’s love and kindness during that dark period.
There was a bed for all the nights she and the girls had spent there.
There was a bell symbolizing all the calls between Martha and my parents as Pat deteriorated.
There was a candle for the middle-of-the-night emergencies.
There were Easter eggs because the family spent Pat’s last Easter in that house one week before he died.
There was a bowl representing all the meals she served Martha’s family.
There was a wooden figure of a little girl, representing Martha’s four cherished daughters.
The house itself represents their house that was a haven for them.
As for the little heart in the chimney, it speaks for itself.
My mother always opened her Mother’s Day presents after our festive Mother’s Day dinners. Back then, three generations of us always went out to the historic Unionville Tavern in Unionville, Ohio, originally built as an inn for travelers heading west from New England, New York and Pennsylvania in pioneer days.
But in 1994, Martha broke with that tradition. She and her daughters gave that gift to my mother privately at breakfast. As my mother sat at the table eating her Cheerios in her yellow bathrobe that Mother’s Day morning, Martha and her daughters set that wrapped-and-bowed box before her. It was their personal offering, not a token to be unwrapped at a festive family table with 15 eager people watching, but something to be shared privately.
When she opened it, they all cried.
“You can bury this with me,” my weeping mother said, touching it, valuing each little token of memory, remembering.
When she brought it to the Unionville Tavern to share with the rest of us that afternoon, we wept, too.
We didn’t bury that keepsake with my mother when she died in 2016. We couldn’t bear to. Today, 25 years later, it hangs in Martha’s kitchen. It is the timeless epitome of a mother’s love.