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Little bits of nothing to me, but symbols of love to my mother

neal cresswell The Globe and Mail

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It started with a pair of disposable latex gloves. My mum in England had for years been struggling to grow her nails, and so, a few years ago on a trip back there, I had let her in on my secret: I wear disposable gloves for anything requiring the use of household chemicals or hot water, and keep my nails painted with clear polish all of the time.

However, after my return to Canada, my mum wrote to advise that she couldn't find this type of glove anywhere (she lived in a small town in northern England). So I sent her 10 pairs and some nail hardener via mail, including instructions on the daily treatment of her nails and a little note (about five paragraphs) outlining recent news from my household: everyday family stuff, mainly about the kids, that would be totally uninteresting to anyone but my mother.

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The week after I had sent the parcel, I was in my local dollar store and I spotted a nail file, which I thought would be very practical for her since, for some unknown reason, coarse nail files were almost impossible to find in her local shops (honestly, I'm not joking). So I bought one and, again, included a note, five paragraphs or so. This time, I put some silly stickers on the outside of the envelope, and sealed it with lots of packaging tape.

I heard nothing until mum mentioned, rather vaguely, some weeks later in a letter, that she had received a letter or two from me and that the gloves and nail file had been just what she had wanted. It was said with genuine appreciation, but also as though I had always sent her letters with little bits and bobs in them. It was like when you make a special meal for your family and everyone sits down and eats, gets up and leaves without a word – then, the following week, they ask you to make that same dish again because "it was the best meal we've ever had."

I continued my mission. I took great delight in scouring dollar stores (I have two personal favourites) looking for items that weren't too heavy or bulky and were geared to an 80-year-old mother who lived on her own and who grew up in prewar Liverpool with nothing. A mother who would rinse out her Ziploc bags and hang them on the clothesline to dry. A mother who, until a few years ago, had never tasted "real" salmon, only the canned variety – and even then picked sockeye only for special occasions and had pink at all other times.

"Practical" was my mum's middle name.

I continued to find lots of stuff. The supply was never-ending and I lost count, after years of sending these little bits of nothing, of how many I had sent. I kept a box on my desk at home where I would place all the suitable items, waiting to be packaged up and sent out with the next letter.

But I had no idea how much this weekly tradition meant until I visited England again, a few months before my mum died.

She was showing me her new interior decorating work, which she had just had completed, and we came upon the "Canadian Collection" in her front room. To other people, the items on her sideboard may have looked tacky, but to her they were a reminder that she was being thought of by someone she loved. The collection contained a wide assortment of items: picture frames, gardening gloves, magnets, dish towels. This was a tradition I had started, and one she had come to look forward to.

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What I didn't know was that the postman biked down her path only about once or twice a month, and nearly always with a bill or some junk mail. She would wait in her front room, nose pressed to the cold, damp window pane, every day at the same time just in case there was a letter from me in his bag. Even when I was staying with her in the house, she would go to the window every morning, just in case I had mailed one that had been in limbo for a few days. Though I was with her in person, she still missed my weekly letter.

My mum's neighbourhood had changed beyond belief in the past few years. Neighbours who had been deep-rooted next to my mum had either died or moved away. New, young families had moved in, often with their share of all-too-common northern-English-working-class problems: unemployment, drug abuse, petty crime. Issues that had been all but non-existent in the past.

My letters represented a constant in her life. Something she could rely on, one little thing that would never change.

My mum died a few years ago, and I still can't help thinking that something valuable lies within my mind, waiting to be said or written on paper and mailed to her, together with whatever is in the "box" (it's still on my desk). Another item for her collection. Another day when her spirit would be lifted by the arrival of the postman. I miss her.

Janette Fairclough lives in Oakville, Ont.

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