I saw her kindness tucked behind the bins of canned soup in the pantry, in the form of five boxes of Saltine crackers.
They're for my second-graders, she said. Some of their families can't afford to feed them breakfast in the morning, and they kept saying they were hungry.
I saw her kindness in the pink nail polish she carefully painted onto my nails when I was nine years old, on the night that my dad and my brothers went roller skating. "Who needs roller skates when you have nail polish and ice cream sundaes?" she said.
I saw it in the tears of joy she cried for the little boy with a learning disability when he read his first book, as her entire class of students broke into unprompted applause for their classmate.
I saw it in the hours of time she spent after school tutoring a little girl whose native language wasn't English and who was struggling to understand math—a little girl who wasn't even in her class.
I saw it in the endless hours she spent helping ME with MY homework all throughout my elementary school years, in the crazy school projects that I definitely did not do all on my own.
I saw it in the letter she left on my pillow when I was having a difficult day.
I saw it when she peeked her head into my room one day and said, "Let's get ice cream!" When I asked her why, she just smiled. "Does there have to be a reason to get ice cream?"
I saw it in her eyes when she took my brothers and me out to lunch for our eighth birthday and an elderly couple stopped by our table to comment on how well-mannered we were. "Thank you," she said. "They're pretty amazing." Thirteen years later, I couldn't tell you what I got for material presents that year but I tucked away those words and they remain the most memorable birthday gift that I've ever received.
I saw it when a stranger accidentally locked her toddler in her car and the fire department had to be called, and my mom went up to the woman and embraced her, wiped her tears and reassured her that she was an amazing mom, that we don't have to be perfect.
And maybe "We don't have to be perfect" was the kindest sentiment that she ever instilled in me...when I came home from school crying because somebody had said something about my legs, and she looked me in the eye and said, "Yeah, you have tightness in your legs and I know it's hard and I know you want to cry sometimes and I know it doesn't seem fair. But you don't have to be perfect. You've overcome so much, and you're already incredible just the way you are."
Sometimes when I'm out and about, somebody will come up to me and say, "You remind me so much of your mom." Usually when someone says that, I laugh it off and change the subject. But next time? Next time it happens, I will think of her and everything she has done to make the world a better place. I will think of her and her quiet acts of kindness and I will smile.
"Thank you," I will say. "She's pretty amazing."