My mom says that if my dad dies first she will become a nun. She’s already Catholic and wouldn’t want to get remarried anyway, so why not live in a peaceful and supportive community of women who are also not having sex? When she told me this, I asked her to please never mention it again because I did not want to contemplate my father’s mortality nor the idea of visiting my mom in a convent. As much this plan horrifies me, I have to admit that it sounded a lot like something my mother, Marie Hopkinson, would do. She is sensible enough to plan for the future, but also sentimental enough to base that plan on a vision of clerical life that — let’s face it — is most likely taken from “The Sound of Music.”
My mom grew up in South Dakota as the quiet fifth child in a family of seven. With that many siblings, I don’t think my mom ever had the chance to be selfish. My mom’s favorite hobbies include gardening, running, worrying about her children, listening to Taylor Swift radio on Pandora, calling her children to tell them that she’s worrying about them and nursing a crush on the actor Owen Wilson. Every day when she comes home from a day of teaching long division to freshly-hormonal 12-year-olds at the public middle school, she enjoys a cup of black tea and a bowl of cereal, typically one consisting of whole grains in varying shades of brownish gray. It looks like something that would be eaten by a bird on a diet. But occasionally, only on special occasions, she pulls a blue box out of the cereal shelf and indulges in what is perhaps her only vice, her most wicked extravagance: Cracklin’ Oat Bran.
Cracklin’ Oat Bran is, as far as I’m concerned, the best cereal to ever grace American breakfast tables. It maintains a bit of a cult-classic status, likely because it has an extraordinarily healthy sounding name and is shaped like something you would feed a farm animal. But each perfect, godly, cracklin’ piece tastes like licking the gates of heaven, full of cinnamon, nutmeg and refined sugar. My mom loves it. On the rare occasions when she buys it from Stop&Shop, the box is gone in a day-and-a-half. As the good daughter that I am, I would join her in this ritual of devouring Cracklin’ Oat Bran, and when some divine force told my mom that it was a special enough day to buy the cereal, we’d both enjoy our bowls across from each other at the kitchen island.
For years Cracklin’ Oat Bran tasted like a special treat, and it tasted like home. Now, in the JE dining hall, I can eat it any day I’d like. When I moved into Yale and ate my first meal in the place where I now live, I was awestruck to find Cracklin’ Oat Bran on tap, absolutely free (or, more accurately, included with room and board). My mom was equally shocked and promptly reminded me that Cracklin’ Oat bran is expensive, and I should get my money’s worth. That first day at college was a blur, but I remember so well the face my parents made when we walked into a different courtyard or explored a new library. My mom would turn to me and say, “Elizabeth, you’re at Yale, I can’t believe that you’re at Yale.” Her voice barely louder than a whisper, as if saying it out loud might wake us up and we would find this all to be a dream.
Yale has now become normal, and so has Cracklin’ Oat Bran. The awe of Gothic architecture has been worn down by familiarity, college life has grown as steady as it could ever hope to be, and I’ve gotten into the habit of finishing every dinner with a mug full of my favorite cereal. Some of that first day magic is gone as I now walk around this campus able to point out the spots where I’ve cried, laughed myself into a stomach ache, and lived all of life’s ups and downs. But when I call my mom, often with a mind buzzing stress, she still says the same thing, “I can’t believe you’re at Yaaale,” stretching out that one syllable so it wraps around me like a hug. I can picture her standing in our kitchen or talking over speaker phone on her way to work, imagining this campus just how it looks on an admissions brochure. For a moment, even in the middle of a Connecticut winter, I am warmed by gratitude.
Gratitude is a beautiful thing. It’s like happiness or joy, but with both magnitude and direction, like a vector in physics, like love with a force behind it. Gratitude is a feeling that spills over because it is so intractably linked to the person or thing that inspired it. But gratitude requires an unselfish mind, and mine is so often closed off by self-centered thoughts and worries that accompany the breakneck pace of college life. I am so grateful for my mom and for all the love she filled me with, and this gratitude is so big, so profound that it almost overwhelms me. It feels so central to the person I’ve grown up to be that I even forget it’s there. To say thank you for everything would take more breaths than I have left in my life. But I realize now that I can break up this gratitude into little pieces, small enough to chew on, small enough to make me look up from my bowl of cereal in the dining hall filled with morning light and quiet and remember to feel grateful for the woman who helped me end up in this place where I can eat as much Cracklin’ Oat Bran as I like.
Elizabeth Hopkinson | firstname.lastname@example.org