Thanks, Mom: Twenty-Five Lessons My Mom Taught Me Before She Died

Working in higher education, especially the area of student affairs, I am privileged to have the opportunity to mentor college students. College for most young adults is a time to ponder the questions of: Who am I? Whose Am I? Who am I called to be? As a college student, these questions were constantly on my mind as I struggled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But they were quickly thrown to the wayside when my Mom unexpectedly passed away right before finals, during the fall of my junior year. My world was turned upside down, and I often wondered how I was going to be able to pick myself back up.

Five years later, having just turned twenty-five, or as my coworker friends like to say, reaching the quarter-life crisis, I still find myself pondering these three questions. I know that I am Colleen. I am the daughter of a loving mother. And I am called to live a life that my Mom would be proud of. As I actively work to achieve this goal, I find myself reflecting on the 25 things that my Mom taught me while she was still here:

“We Are Family.”

When each of us were born my parents gave my siblings and I theme songs. My brother’s was Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Little did we know how perfect the line, “I got all my sister’s with me” will be at filling the void she left in his life, as we get the privilege of dancing with him during his future mother and son wedding dance instead of her.

Love ferns are real. As seen in How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days my Mom would water one of our kitchen plants on a regular basis. One day I asked how long we had it for. She said it was given to her when I was brought home from the hospital as a housewarming gift. That was at least twenty years earlier.

“Soft pants” are the first thing you change into upon entering the house. My love for sweatpants was definitely inherited from my Mom. On any given day you could see her in a crew neck sweatshirt and matching bottoms. Bonus points if they had the elastic’s on the ankles…those were her go-to’s.

Animals are a Wilson’s best friend. Growing up, our house was never short of pets. If you had a favorite animal, eventually Mom found a way to bring it home. Santa brought my rabbit while the Easter Bunny brought my sister’s duck. The cats, dogs, hermit crabs and turtles filled in the years in between.

Die is not a scary word.

At my Mom’s baby shower a family friend gave her a teddy bear that soon would become my best friend. Before long “Die” as I called him, was attached to my hip and I couldn’t go anywhere without bringing him along. Unfortunately on a family vacation to Chicago, Die mysteriously fell out of the car or was left at one of our pit stops. Loosing Die was my first glimpse into the emotion of grief and what loss really felt like. My grandmother tried giving me a new bear but it was never the same. Whether it’s a parent or your favorite stuffed animal, nothing can replace the original.




Saying grace is essential, but it doesn’t have to be ordinary. Every meal was started with a chorus of: “God is good, God is great. Let us thank him for our food. Amen, Eat. Psst” The “Psst” personified by the Wilson version of spirit fingers as they collided with the person eating to the left and right of you.


Twenty-hour car rides are not for the faint of heart.

Every February vacation, for as long as I can remember, all six of us would cram into our mini-van in the dark of night and embark on the journey down to “the happiest place on earth.” While we would argue over which VHS was going to be played next: Land Before Time or Annie, I learned to appreciate what a strong, tight-knit family we had. This sunshine state became a destination that wasn’t about my favorite characters or fast passes, but about the time that I got to spend with my entire family.

Hosting a gathering is an art form. One that my Mom was very good at. Whether it was a holiday Yankee swap, a High School Musical viewing party or a Thanksgiving meal, Mom knew how to entertain. From the place settings, to the hors d’oeuvres to the friendly atmosphere, I learned from the best.

Christmas can be celebrated anytime of the year.

Growing up with such a large family, it was almost impossible to see both sides, during the holidays. That was when Mom started “Christmas in July” for her relatives. We would meet at our summer cottage and exchange Christmas gifts, followed by a fun day out on the boat basking in the summer sun. “This Will Be An Everlasting Love”. The Parent Trap, (obviously the Lindsay Lohan version) was one of my family’s favorite movies growing up. Not only did we love the movie, but we listened to the soundtrack in the car and danced to it throughout the living room. There was always something so beautiful about the way Hallie Parker and Annie James were able to remind their parents about what true love really meant.

Corned beef and Cabbage is not just a St. Patrick’s Day meal. Being almost 100% Irish, I grew up in a family that loved reminding others of our green, white and orange Heritage. While my first name has a Gaelic translation meaning, Irish Girl, that wasn’t enough for my parents. Six years later they named my youngest sister, Ireland. They loved dressing us up in green every March and feeding us what now is one of our favorite meals. There was nothing like walking into the house smelling the perfect combination of potatoes, corn beef, cabbage and carrots cooking in the crockpot.

Good luck comes in two important family traditions.

First from surprise butter attacks on your nose throughout your birthday. Second by waking up on the first day of the month and saying “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit” before anything else. Both traditions we believe to be passed down from our past generations influenced by our Irish heritage.

The skin of an apple is underrated and delicious. When October rolls around I am reminded of my Mom’s ability to make the best apple pie. She always knew the perfect combination of ingredients and she never forgot to leave a bowl of apple skins (covered in cinnamon sugar) ready for me when I walked through the door.

Fire parties are the best parties. Growing up my siblings and I always looked forward to a weekend that culminated with a fire party. This consisted of all six of us sitting in the living room, around the burning fire, eating a smorgasbord of appetizers on the coffee table with Marc Cohn and Van Morrison playing on the stereo.

Laughter is the best medicine. Growing up I knew that my Mom was different, as she only had one breast. It wasn’t until later that I learned more about her battle with breast cancer and her ability to survive it. She was constantly reminded by her removable boob that could be inserted in her bra or bathing suit to give the illusion that she was normal. On any given day, you could find us kids, playing with this insert, tossing it around and laughing at how cool our Mom was.

Life should be spent dancing. When seated, especially when driving, some may find it difficult to dance along to the music…not my Mom. Regardless of the song she was always making up dance moves as we belted out the lyrics alongside her. Her go-to move was coined “the whale” which allowed for in-place arm dancing while being safe (if driving) and still showing enthusiasm for the music. She taught each of us to make the most of each day and “the whale” is the perfect representation of that.


Appreciate the opportunity for a home cooked meal. The amount of patience my Mom had with me as I would walk to the bus at 7 am and ask “what’s for dinner?” She would look at me and say, “I don’t know, what are you making?” Now, 25 years old, living on my own, I would give anything for one of her fantastic meals instead of having to figure out what I am going to make for myself.

There is always something good in every day. Dinnertime at the Wilson residence was typically a time of no phones, no television and staying connected. Mom would ask each of us to go around and say one good thing that happened to us that day.

The cook is not allowed to do the dishes. Cleaning up after a meal was something that my Mom instilled in all of us as a joint effort, one that was done together out of respect for her and also as a bonding time for all of us.

Going #2 is not an acceptable reason for getting out of doing the dishes. As soon as dinner was over, without fail, my brother would ALWAYS sneak off to the bathroom, using his “need

to poop” as a way of escaping dinner clean up. Almost always he would win as our impatience would take over and we’d dry or wash the dishes for him.

You never know what you love doing, until you figure out what you don’t.

My Mom was my number one supporter when it came to me trying out every sport imaginable: basketball, ice-skating, singing, dancing, crew, track and field, the list goes on. Eventually I found swimming and she could be seen in the bleachers cheering me on during every meet.

People Can Be So Cold.” In middle school, when I was getting cyber bullied (being sent nasty instant messages online) by a girl that wanted to push me out of a friend group so she could take my spot, I cried for days. My Mom was the one that pulled me out of this slump. Her hugs during this time meant more to me than she’ll ever know. In the lyrics of Carole King, “All I [had] to do was call, and [she was] there. You’ve got a friend.” Small gestures mean the most.

I would give anything to have my Mom comb, curl or braid my hair again. There was always something so calming and intimate about this small exchange, one that I would love to share over and over.

You can never have too many home videos or undeveloped film rolls. There was always a camera in my parent’s hands capturing our milestones, vacations and family gatherings. While it may have seemed annoying at the time, these videos are one of the most important parts of our grieving process. Not only do we have videos of our Mom, we have her voice captured for all eternity.

“You’ve Got To Get Up Every Morning With a Smile On Your Face And Show The World All The Love In Your Heart. While my Mom’s singing voice was no Carole King, I would give anything to re-live many mornings when she would wake all of us up to her singing this tune and starting our day off with smile.

[published on www.toodamnyoung.com on Nov 20, 2014]

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