Enter your email address below and subscribe to our newsletter


“I earned my Phi Beta Kappa Key the hard way!” Dad said, flipping brats on the grill, with Mom holding a platter, standing nearby and guests all around him.

“How’s that?” Mom’s friend asked.

“I married it!”

The jest elicited a laugh, a roll of the eyes from Mom, and a dimpled grin from Dad. As Mom and I carried trays inside, she whispered, “That joke of your father’s gets mighty old.”


Mom was proud of her academic prowess. She pinned it on her 1960s Jackie O look-alike suits she wore to PTA meetings hoping the medal might impress her students’ parents. Sadly, most didn’t know the significance of her jewelry.

As a child, Mom had been doted on by parents who didn’t like each other much, but thought their daughter hung the moon. The affection they withheld from each other, they poured on her. Money, which they didn’t have to spend, they still spent on her. Fashionable clothes, private lessons, and an elite college all took cash- mostly gained from selling inherited farmland. In turn, they received a dividend – an accomplished, educated, poised daughter, who also happened to be very pretty.

Mom played the accordion at get-togethers. Folks commented: “Shirley, I wish I had your musical talent.”

In private, Mom said, “Talent? Humpf! I practiced day in and day out. For years! That’s what a lonely girl does when she has no sisters or brothers to play with.” Mom had played with Charles Nunzio and had even been on the radio. While at Duke, she played at weddings and other events for a little “pin money.”

During the barbecue, a stay-at-home mom remarked: “Shirley, you’re fortunate you have a gift for languages.”

Mom smiled, but I knew what she was thinking. I’d heard her say many times: “Luck has nothing to do with it! Rote memorization and drill do! If Helen had fallen asleep each night clutching her Spanish textbook, like me, she’d be ‘gifted,’ too.”

My dad’s sister never learned to operate an automobile with any proficiency. Marge remarked, “I wish I had the courage to drive to the shore, like Shirley.” Mom didn’t think it took courage to drive to Island Beach, New Jersey. Kids need to go to the beach in the summer so you take them, Mom philosophized. Yet, Mom did have gumption; she’d flown gliders in her twenties. The first time my dad watched her doing this while they were dating, he, on the ground, almost fainted as she flew perilously close to high-tension wires.

“Isn’t it something the way you hold down a job, raise three children, and care for your widowed mother?” another neighbor gushed as she looked over at Ama sitting in a chair being served sauerkraut and sausages by Dad.

Mom held the warm German potato salad that she arose early that morning to prepare. “You could do the same thing!” Mom answered the seated lady as my mother bent over to spoon the sour and sweet spud mélange onto the guest’s plate. Mom later confided to me, “Anyone can get up early and prepare a recipe.” Mom saw nothing remarkable in her can-do attitude.


Whenever Mom joined an organization, she was elected to a position of authority. “Those Germans sized your mother up right away when we joined the Steuben Society,” Dad said. “They made her secretary; your mom added German poetry to the newsletters. Your mom could take a job, excel in it, and expand it,” Dad added.

Mom wasn’t scared of the unknown, of rejection, or of doing too much. She grabbed life by the horns and wrestled it into submission.


I wish I’d had more time with her. The little free time Mom had was split between my siblings and me, Dad, grandma, in-laws, friends, teaching, obligations, chores, women’s clubs, and church. At 18, I was off to college, a career, marriage, and family. Mom became direly sick before I finished having children.

In her final year, 1986, Dad had to make a business trip to Japan which would last a month. Mom insisted on accompanying him. She never missed an opportunity to travel.

I worried about the trek because of her illness, but she had a blast astonishing the Japanese businessmen with how fast she picked up expressions and culture. Women weren’t allowed to attend dinners, but the board chairman took a shine to her; he’d say, “Mrs. Vogel, you sit next to me at the table.” When I saw my parents after their return, Dad glowingly recited the compliments paid her.

Mom confessed: “Erika, I listened to those tapes day and night just so I could say the most mundane things! Japanese isn’t easy to learn! Those men were kind complimenting me on my limited knowledge.”

Every so often over the years, I’ll reach into the back of my dresser drawer and pull out a velvet box. Of all the things left me, this little piece of metal, her Phi Beta Kapp key, means the most. It symbolizes what she valued: perseverance, diligence, and recognition for a job well done. I gaze at her beloved pin, and I see her again, grinning, confident, and ready to get on with the next assignment, adventure, or opportunity.

My mom taught me to strive, to learn constantly, and to have fun along the way. This heirloom left to me has a significance that’s much more powerful than the report cards it represents; it is a reminder of who she was, what she valued, and how she led her life.


  1. Wonderful memoir of mom. She comes alive in Eriks’s writing. Great job!
    Happy Mother’s Day to all!!

  2. Such a loving tribute to her mom. So well written and entertaining. I always love reading Erika Hoffman’s essays. Now we have a bit more insight as to how she is such a talented writer.

  3. I’ve got to pin it on you, Erica, you’ve penned another shining gem…an admiring and loving tribute to your own mother. I can imagine her grateful smile.
    Happy Mother’s Day to you!

  4. This is so good and a great reflection of your mom. What a great piece to leave for your grandkids to learn about their great grand. This inspires me to do the same about my parents

  5. This tribute is so beautiful and written with love! It brought tears to my eyes probably because I knew her and could put a face to her name! This will go down as one of my favorite pieces of your writing! You are your mother and that is a sincere compliment ! I know your mom was so proud of you and your accomplishments!

  6. It would seem you’re a reflection of your mom, Erika. This essay is heartwarming and showcases your writing talent. Have a wonderful Mother’s Day.

  7. Reading (and enjoying) your many essays over the years, I can see you inherited your mother’s wonderful attributes. As mothers, we all hope we pass on something sentimental, knowledgeable, and/or positive to our children. Your mom was successful on all counts. Happy Mother’s Day, Erika!

  8. Such a beautiful tribute to an amazing woman! What a blessing for you to be able to call her mom. Your essay gives me inspiration to keep going and continue to try to pass on something positive to my children. Thank you for sharing something so personal and so meaningful.

  9. Your essay rang true for me as you related the hard work ethic your mother adhered to and the sucess that it brought to herself and her progeny.
    I will share this with my children and tell them to get out those Phi Beta Kappa pins!!

  10. This essay is lovely. Tears welled in my eyes as you remembered your Mother with such kindness, love and respect. Of course, your words remind me of my Mother and they evoke both joy and sadness. If only we could know our moms today as the women we are today, can you imagine? Thank you Erika for stirring up such loving emotions. Keep on writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *