A gumball machine made me cry yesterday.

A bank of gumball machines, actually, in the exit area of Shaw’s. I’ve walked by them a thousand times, but they blend into the scenery. I’m also usually fighting with an overloaded shopping cart.

But yesterday, I glanced over and there they were. This time, I really looked at them, with their capsules full of colorful goodies, and I was thrown back in time to the days when my kids would jostle around my legs like puppies, and a quarter for the vending machine was everything to them.

All parents know the siren song of gumball machines. They take our change and give out trinkets and candy. It’s nice that charities get money from some of them but they’re still responsible for a lot of supermarket meltdowns.

My kids would probably say I didn’t hand out money for the gum machines often enough, but I hope they remember the times that I did. A handful of SweeTarts, a little ring, a tiny Pooh Bear eraser – there was once a day when these things were dear to them.

I love having grownup kids with their own fascinating lives. But sniffling in the vestibule of Shaw’s, I wanted, just for a moment, to go back to a time when my kids found joy in those gumballs and little rings. I wanted to go back to a time when their warm, sweet limbs were always wrapped around some part of me.

Caught up in the comedy/drama of raising small children, when life can go from happy smiles to a screamfest in a matter of seconds, I didn’t truly believe those days would ever end. But they did. And there I was, years later, blinking back tears next to a gum machine.

I also recently cried over my mother’s meatloaf pan. It’s a handmade earthenware loaf pan, pale yellow with mushrooms on the side. I bought it for her birthday many years ago when we were on a vacation in Nantucket.

I spent hours in one of the downtown shops picking out exactly the right thing. Nothing seemed good enough until I found the beautiful loaf pan. At the last minute, I added a little cookbook called “The Country Art of Blueberry Cookery” because my mother adored blueberries. She loved both gifts and always used that pan for her meatloaf.

She passed away too soon at 78 after suffering a traumatic fall. After the funeral, her friend Ruthie and I were numbly sorting through her things. The house felt so lifeless without her. Ruthie picked up the loaf pan and pressed it into my hands. 

“You take your mother’s meatloaf pan right now. This is yours,” Ruthie said firmly. “Nobody will treasure it the way you do.”

Both of us wiped our eyes, and I hugged the pan to my chest. Whenever I make meatloaf, I pull out the pan and my throat tightens as I envision my mother as she looked on that Nantucket vacation, her platinum blond hair windblown and elegant. It didn’t seem possible to me then that there would ever be a time that she would no longer be with me.

The blueberry cookbook found its way to my house, too, but lay unused for a long time. I picked it up recently looking for a muffin recipe. When I saw the inside front cover, a small shock ran through me. There in my mother’s looping cursive were the words “Nantucket, Mass, July 23, 1975.” Coming upon her handwriting was a gift, albeit one that choked me up.

Gumball machines. A pan. A cookbook and an inscription. Small things like this unlock memories of people we love. And if a few tears fall, it isn’t always because we are sad. It’s because at those moments we understand so clearly how lucky and blessed we have always been.

Marilyn Davis Archibald (archie4618@aol.com) lives and writes in West Newbury.