Before my house burned down, if you had asked me what I’d grab in the event of a fire, I would have said family pictures. Jewelry. My piano if I could have carried it. Things that were rare and irreplaceable. But those aren’t the things I mourn now that everything’s gone. It’s the mug that I want the most.
My daughter Hannah was a freshly washed newborn in a pink-and-blue-striped hospital blanket when I received my first gift as a mother — a glossy mug with the words “New Mom.” I drank from the cup as I nursed her late at night. I gulped coffee from it as I rushed her off to school. I sipped tea from it, waiting to hear her car in the driveway.
Twenty-five years and thousands of cycles in the dishwasher had barely dimmed the mug’s shiny surface. And it had made it that long without a single chip — until my house burned down.
In 2016, I lost pretty much everything I owned in a fused mass of moldy ashes and soot-covered shards. In the flames of the six-alarm fire, I heard the echo of a life being devoured — family pictures that I never got around to digitizing, clay prints of my children’s tiny hands, sippy cups saved for grandchildren that I might eventually have, dog-eared books with notes in the margins. And a mug I didn’t think much about until a couple of years after the fire when someone casually asked me, “What is the one thing you miss the most?” and I surprised myself by replying, “The coffee cup someone gave me the day I became a mother.”
Mugs are one of those pedestrian objects you routinely use without thinking. I filled mine with hot Costa Rican coffee and those expensive triangular teabags that were once one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. I retired many from the kitchen to hold pens and make-up brushes elsewhere in the house. I forgot the complementary ones from some conference in San Diego or Omaha at the back of a shelf that’s too high to reach without a stepladder.
But the New Mom mug — and the monotony of using it one day and then another, and then another — made me believe my life would always include a pantry filled with Goldfish crackers and fruit roll-ups. I had no idea that mug would come to mean so much to me.
There are no mugs that say “Experienced Mom” because motherhood, like our children, is always changing. Every new stage for them is a new stage for us. And so many of their wins — the first step, the driver’s license, the graduation — are our losses.
Every new stage for [our children] is a new stage for us. And so many of their wins — the first step, the driver’s license, the graduation — are our losses.
No, I don’t miss the physical presence of the mug. I miss an object that gave me a sense of permanence while everything around me kept changing. I miss a ceramic piece that memorialized the days with toddlers that lasted forever and the years with teenagers that passed in an instant.
I remembered so many of the firsts, but I couldn’t remember the lasts. When was the last time I pulled my daughter’s hair into a ponytail before she began doing it herself? When was the last time I walked with my son’s hand in mine before he was too embarrassed to be seen holding hands with me? When was the last time I read my daughter a story or sang my son to sleep?
Inch by inch
Row by row
Gonna make this garden grow.
Mothering is a constant series of unremarkable losses — I knew that. But that mug seemed to say otherwise.
I don’t remember the last time I used my mug. Perhaps it was in the dishwasher the day my house burned down. It may have been left on the counter still half full of tea. It may have sat clean in the cupboard. I spent days sifting through rubble trying to find anything useful or salvageable, but eventually gave up. And the mug never materialized.
Only when it was gone did I realize how its daily use had protected me from the overwhelming feelings of longing and loss, desire and hope that come when the single-minded task of mothering is finished.