Things too beautiful to be saved

WE were in my mother's kitchen, at her table - my daughters and I - sitting in the pool of light from the lamp overhead and toying with plates of chocolate cake. It was the evening after my mother's funeral. As people do in those sad times, we were calling up memories, remembering happy days and funny stories, silly things that Gran had said, all the times we'd laughed together. As we talked I watched my daughters eat their cake. Now 16 and 19, they followed the same procedures they had as little girls. I remembered one birthday in particular when they had watched me bake the chocolate cake and ice it with fudge frosting, and had squirmed with impatience through dinner. At last, I handed them each a plate with identical squares of cake. What happened next was something I had seen countless times.

Molly quickly separated the icing from its base and ate it in four bites. Then, slowly, she ate most of the cake, licked all around her lips, and looked up at me. ``That was good, Mom,'' she said, ``specially the frosting.''

Laurie took the opposite approach. She also separated the cake from the frosting, then pushed the frosting carefully to one side. When every crumb of cake was eaten, she started on the icing, one tiny bite at a time.

``Do you like the cake better than the icing, Laurie?'' I had asked. ``Is that why you eat it first?''

``Oh, no, Mom!'' Laurie's eyes were big with surprise. ``I like the cake, but I love the frosting. That's why I always save it to the last.''

It was always the same. Molly's ice cream cones disappeared in minutes; Laurie's ended in sticky drips all over her hands and shirts. Laurie's new doll stayed curled and crinolined in a place of honor on Laurie's bed, while Molly's doll got progressively more tattered from days of tea parties and buggy rides.

Did Molly like her things any less? Was Laurie more appreciative? No, I knew they both adored their dolls, loved ice cream and chocolate cake and all the things that most kids like. But they had very different ways of approaching life's pleasures.

I remembered a new dress I had begged for when I was about 12. Yellow, with a wide, white collar, and lace edging on the sleeves. I wanted it more than any dress I had ever seen and was ecstatic when my mother finally agreed to buy it for me. I loved looking at it there in my closet - waiting for the right special occasion. My mother asked me several times why I hadn't worn it, when I was going to wear it, didn't I like it? I kept assuring her that I loved it, that I was saving it for something special, that it was too pretty to wear just any old time, on some regular day.

I had finally put on the yellow dress for my friend Marjorie's birthday party. I wouldn't sit down until it was time to get in the car, and then I sat on the edge of the seat so I wouldn't wrinkle the dress. I hadn't been at the party an hour before I spilled something on the white collar - something that never quite came out. Oh, how I wished I hadn't chosen my special yellow dress to wear that day. If only I had continued to save it.

But it doesn't always work that way, I reminded myself. I remembered the annual closet cleaning - repeated every year with the same results. Piles of things set aside for the Salvation Army truck. Clothes that looked almost as they did when they were new. Shoes with soles barely worn. But all hopelessly out of date. Saved and saved and then discarded. It seemed the perpetual dilemma, one that I might never resolve.

Molly and Laurie and I finished our cake and turned to the task we had been putting off - going through Gran's things. We started with the closet and worked as quickly as we could. Not wanting to think too much about it - just to get it done. Finally I told the girls to go on, watch television, think of something else; I would do the dresser myself.

As I sat on the padded bench before the mirror where I had seen my mother sit so many times, I felt close to her, saw in that mirror how much like her I was. On the dressing table top, a group of special things had been lovingly arranged on a lace doily - little bottles and jars, a small picture frame, a silver thimble, a tiny carved chest containing pins and stray buttons. And a little white cardboard box.

I picked it up in amazement. So many years since I had given it to my mother. My first exciting trip to France. I had wanted to bring my mother some perfume that would be special, that would be something none of her friends could have had. I had chosen a new fragrance, one that had not been imported to the United States. It was a tiny bottle, and not expensive, but new, different, something my mother would enjoy wearing.

The box was triangular and the top came off reluctantly. There in the little base stood the bottle of perfume. Unopened. Saved, I knew, for an occasion special enough to deserve such a special fragrance.

Through my tears, looking into my own eyes there in my mother's mirror, I promised to remember that little bottle. To remember that life can never be saved, it can only be lived each special moment at a time.

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