avatarGill McCulloch



You Can’t Find a Coloured Crayon in an Empty Tin

11 valuable life lessons from a loving mother to her three daughters

Birthday celebrations on the Bluebell Railway, Sussex, England. The photo is the author’s own.

“Aaah, Aaaah, Aaaa…chooooooooooooooooooo!”

I’ve never known anyone to enjoy their sneezes more than my mum. She turned each one into an Oscar-winning performance you could hear wherever you were in the house.

Mum knew her sneezing dramatics made us laugh, so she ensured the build-up was extra loud to entertain her family.

Nobody can condense a mother’s teachings into a single story. However, I’d like to share eleven life lessons and pearls of wisdom from my wise and fun-loving mum.

1. You’re never too old to have fun

Mum had a lovely, playful nature, often squashed down by long days of hard work and the stress of raising three daughters. She seemed to have boundless energy and was always game for an outing or adventure.

One of Mum’s funny quirks was that whenever she saw a big pot, she would have the urge to climb into it. Every one of our family photo albums has a picture of Mum in a pot with a cheeky grinning face.

Photos of the author’s mother showing her playful nature. The photos are the author’s own.

After our Greek wedding, my husband and I hosted a musical-themed costume party for everyone who couldn’t join us in Greece. Many celebrities attended, including Mozart, Cher (my sister), all four members of ABBA, Gene Simmons (uncle Dick), Madonna (cousin Annemieke), Tina Turner, Bob Marley, Richie Sambora (my husband), and Janis Joplin (Me). Mum dressed as Dolly Parton, and my dad — the usually serious and sensible doctor, was a convincing roadie.

One year, for her birthday, we treated Mum to a train ride on the Bluebell Railway in Sussex, England. We packed a bottle of champagne and glasses and purchased first-class tickets on the lovely old train.

Mum was like an excited young girl. She was thrilled with her birthday adventure, and this day remains one of my favourite family memories.

1. Inside the first class compartment on the Bluebell Railway. 2. The author's music-themed wedding costume party. The photos are the author’s own.

Mum was never too proud to have fun and be silly, which was one reason she always seemed so youthful and was loved by many.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. — George Bernard Shaw

2. Honesty is the best policy.

When I was about four years old, I stole a big blue wax crayon from the crayon tin at Sunday School. I didn’t know I’d stolen it as I had yet to learn taking things that belonged to others was wrong.

The crayon was broken but much fatter than the others in the tin, and I loved it, so I brought it home. One day, my mum found the crayon on the windowsill and asked me where it had come from.

When I told her, she said gently, “Imagine if all the children took a coloured crayon from the tin and brought it home. There wouldn’t be any crayons left, would there?” I pictured the empty tin and felt sad. I took the crayon to church the following Sunday and put it back in the tin.

My mother taught me an important lesson without making me feel guilty by inviting me to think about what I’d done and understand the consequences of my actions.

“Imagine if all the children took a coloured crayon from the tin and brought it home. There wouldn’t be any crayons left, would there?”

1. Author (right) with her older sister. 2. and 3. Author aged three. The photos are the author’s own.

3. If you break something, own up.

Occasionally, my parents would host dinner parties for their friends. Mum was a fabulous cook and made every effort to ensure her guests enjoyed a delicious meal. She loved to create beautiful table settings and was always proud to place her antique lazy Susan in the middle of our round mahogany dining table.

The lazy Susan had a glass top over a pretty lace cloth. One day, my older sister and I decided the lazy Susan would make a good roundabout. We slid it out from under Dad’s writing bureau, stood on top of it, held each other and made it spin around. It was fun until the glass cracked, and we stared in horror at the broken turntable.

Quickly, we slid the lazy Susan back under the bureau and soon forgot all about it. A few weeks later, when Mum pulled it out for one of her rare dinner parties, she discovered our crime. How on earth we thought we’d get away with this, I will never know. I’ve forgotten our punishment, but I remember how upset Mum was.

She was sad about the broken, lazy Susan, but worse was her disappointment in us for not owning up to breaking it. From this, I learned it’s not your mistakes that count, but what you do afterward that’s important. From that day, I vowed always to own up and take responsibility for breakages or mistakes.

4. Don’t worry if you take a wrong turn

Reading maps was not one of Mum’s talents. She would have been thrilled with GPS, but sadly, this technology arrived too late for her. One summer, when I was 16, Mum took my older sister and me on a short holiday to The Netherlands.

We drove all over Mum’s home country, and she entertained us with stories from her childhood. We visited a clog factory and windmills, bought fresh milk and cheese from farms, picnicked in fields and at the side of roads, visited quaint little towns and markets and gorged on salty Dutch licorice. My mouth is watering as I write this.

Because we got lost so often, we only made it to a few of the places Mum planned for us to visit, but we found other adventures along the way. One day, when we teased her about her map-reading skills, she said,

“Oh, I never worry about getting lost. There may be something exciting around the corner.”

We laughed so much on that holiday, and the experience sowed the seeds for future adventures. I learned that if you get lost or life doesn’t go your way, stay calm, have courage and expect things to turn out for the best. This advice came in handy a few years later when I had a significant setback at school.

5. There’s always a silver lining.

When I was 18, I got chickenpox just before my A-Level exams and missed going to university that year. I thought my life was over, but Mum reassured me I’d look back and see things had worked out for the best. I was so frustrated and disappointed that I didn’t believe her, but she was right.

I found a job in France and ended up having the best six months of my life living and working as an Aupair with a wonderful family in Paris. The following year, I started university. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. When life throws a curveball, make the best of the situation and always look for silver linings.

The author in Paris, 1984. 1. With the host family’s children. 2. Relaxing in a Paris cafe. 3. Learning songs with Vietnamese busker friends. The photos are the author’s own.

6. Send thank you cards and show appreciation.

When my sisters and I received gifts from relatives, Mum would have us write little thank you cards and letters to them. Sometimes, we were reluctant to do this. We were too busy watching Thunderbirds, Doctor Who or Top of the Pops.

Mum explained how important it was to show appreciation to others. These days, with many communication options, it is quick and easy to send thank yous to others, and there is no excuse for not doing it. Showing gratitude makes people feel happy and appreciated and goes a long way to creating strong relationships.

The author’s mother. 1. Nursing days. 2. The author with her mother. 3. The author (right) with her mother and older sister.

7. Always Be kind and volunteer to help others

Before having children, Mum worked for several years as a nurse. I’m sure her patients loved her as she was a warm, capable and thoughtful person. She also cared for her daughters with love and kindness.

Mum volunteered with various organizations, including the Women’s Institute and Meals on Wheels. Sometimes, I would accompany her on visits and help bring tins of hot food into people’s homes.

I met many lonely, older adults living in neglected residences. My young eyes and mind opened at the site of hands with swollen, arthritic knuckles struggling with can lids, stooped backs and greasy hair, slippered feet shuffling through cluttered hallways and fleas hopping on dusty furniture.

It was a humbling experience that made me appreciate my youth, energy, good food, comfortable home, and my kind and loving mother. Mum chatted easily with everyone she met and made people feel at ease. Our friends loved her and knew they were always welcome in our home. She inspired me to volunteer and teach my children to do the same.

8. Celebrate birthdays.

Growing up in The Netherlands, Mum’s family made a considerable effort to make celebrations unique and memorable. A family member would enter the kitchen for breakfast on their birthday to find their chair decorated with flowers. They got to choose their favourite foods for dinner and were not allowed to lift a finger all day.

Gifts were always double-wrapped with tissue paper, colourful wrappings, and ribbons. Later, the birthday person would blow out candles on a delicious homemade cake.

Birthdays only come once a year, so why not plan a fun day and celebrate? People place different importance on birthdays, so to avoid disappointment, it’s best not to rely on others to make your birthday special.

9. Be a lifelong learner.

Mum was in high school in occupied Holland during WW2. Her school was bombed, and it always bothered her that she never got to complete her education. While raising us, Mum challenged herself by registering for an Open University degree course.

Every week, she received assignments in the mail. She would rush home to watch lectures on TV, complete projects, write them up, and mail them to her professor for marking. She got her degree, passing with distinction, and was later awarded a second degree in Mathematics from Sussex University. I will never know how she did all this while raising three daughters. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

The author’s mother. 1. Studying hard for her degree. 2. and 3. Author’s mother on graduation day after proudly receiving her university degree. The photos are the author’s own.

10. Turn your passion into a business.

Mum attended many evening classes over the years, including lampshade making, pottery, jewelry, and glasswork. She was exceptionally talented in glass art and specialized in making beautiful Tiffany lampshades.

In her fifties, after gifting her glasswork to family and friends for several years, she turned her hobby into a mini business. She taught adult evening classes and sold her creations in craft fares and abroad.

Each evening, our living room is bathed in the warm, soothing glow of Mum’s gorgeous colourful lamps — part of the beautiful legacy she left in the world.

The author’s mother with her students and her beautiful, handmade glasswork. The photos are the author’s own.

11. Cheer people up with flowers.

Mum loved flowers and trees and was always happy to spend time in her garden or walking in nature. She also enjoyed making arrangements for her church and giving flowers and plants as gifts.

Our dad wasn’t one to make a big deal out of birthdays. But, knowing she loved flowers, he once bought Mum a large sack of daffodil bulbs for her birthday. He neglected the extra step of offering to plant the bulbs for her, so Mum did it herself. However, the following Spring, when the garden was a burst of glorious yellow, she happily forgave him.

The author’s mother enjoying flowers in the park and garden and receiving birthday flowers. The photos are the author’s own.

When my sisters and I were sick, Mum would bring us meals in bed. She would often place a tiny vase with flowers from the garden on the tray along with the chicken soup or mini sandwiches, a favourite magazine, and a chocolate bar to cheer us up. Her extra effort to bring a little sunshine and beauty from the garden made us feel loved.

I learned many valuable life lessons from my mum and will always be grateful for her love, encouragement, and support.

The author’s mother and two sisters. The photos are the author’s own.


  • You’re never too old to have fun. Plan some playtime into your schedule.
  • Be honest and do the right thing even when nobody’s watching. When you make a mistake, try and make things right as soon as possible.
  • Develop a sense of adventure, and don’t be afraid if you take a wrong turn — there may be something exciting around the corner.
  • When life throws a curveball, make the best of the situation and always look for the silver lining.
  • Don’t take gifts and kind gestures for granted. Send thank you notes to show appreciation.
  • Always be kind and make time to volunteer. By helping others, you will help yourself.
  • Celebrate your birthday and take responsibility for planning the day.
  • Be a lifelong learner and consider turning your passion into a business.
  • Cheer someone up by surprising them with a lovely plant or bunch of flowers.

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