How One Son Moved His Mom to Tears with the Help of Two Sponges and a Bottle of Water

Find out what one college kid did to make his mom weep with joy.

Courtesy Sarene WallaceTrevor Wallace knew the typical Mother’s Day flowers and chocolates wouldn’t impress his mom. Instead the San Jose State University senior woke up early on the day and hand-scrubbed a fountain in the wee hours of the morning. It wasn’t just any fountain, that motivated the 22-year old—it was one that had a special significance to his family.

See, 15 minutes away from Trevor’s campus sits DeAnza Community College, the very school were his beloved grandmother had worked for decades. She was a beloved learning disabilities specialist and instructor right up until the day she passed away from breast cancer in 1999. She was only 59-years old at the time.

In her memory, her co-workers at the school dedicated a large, cement angel fountain in her honor with a plaque that says Heart’s Garden: In Memory of Marilyn Rosenthal.

Courtesy Sarene WallaceThe fountain was special to Trevor’s mom, Sarene, who was only 36 years old when her mom died. Though she cherished it, she lived six hours away in Ventura County and didn’t have the opportunity to visit.

As time went on, the faculty who dedicated the fountain retired and the fountain, which is hidden under trees in the student quad, fell into disrepair. A cousin that works at the college let Trevor and Sarene know that vandals had broken the statue’s bowl at its base and damaged adjacent cement benches. The water pump was clogged with leaves and the surrounding area was littered with debris.

Finally, in 2013, one of the school’s groundskeepers agreed to repair the fountain, because he remembered Marilyn Rosenthal who was popular for touching many lives. When the fountain was repaired, Sarene and Trevor took the 300-mile trip to visit it. On a quiet afternoon, they posed for a photo together. Sarene recalls, “We sat watching the fountain for a while, the water tinkling as it went into the bowls. It was so peaceful.”

Flash forward to 2015. Though Trevor and his mom hadn’t spoken about their visit to the fountain two years earlier, he knew it was still precious to her. So when deciding what to get his mom for Mother’s Day, the fountain came to mind. Sarene has an appreciation of homemade gifts. Her home is filled with hand-thrown pottery she made herself: coffee mugs, glazed over with glossy shades of turquoise, dark navy, and earthy greens and even the butter container in their fridge is made of clay.

Whatever he was going it do, it would have to be unique. Trevor called Sarene that Sunday to wish her a happy Mother’s day and told her to expect a surprise. Then he drove to San Jose State to DeAnza with his camera, tripod, and two sponges.

Courtesy Sarene WallaceWhen he arrived at the fountain, it was covered with leaves and caked with dirt, in worse shape than he expected. He started to scrub, motivated by memories of his late grandmother, whom he called “Bubbe“. He thought about how when he was a kid he would wake her up, by jumping on her bed at 6.a.m to ask her to read to him and his sister, Rachel. Bubby always said yes. She often gave the kids books as gifts, kissing the inner flaps to make a lipstick-marked seal. As he cleaned, Trevor got the same feeling he imagined his mom gets at her pottery wheel— being in the moment doing an act of service for someone you love. It was therapeutic.

There was one problem; the fountain’s water was turned off. Without water, the likelihood of a shiny site was slim, so Trevor purchased a bottle from a vending machine. “I was out there pouring Aquafina on an abandoned fountain. People were looking at me all crazy.” Trevor refilled the water bottle multiple times. It took him about two hours to clean up the best he could, removing the first few layers of dust and being careful around the fragile pieces. He set up his camera on the tripod, checked the lighting and took a before and after shot. He sent his mom three separate emails.

The subject line of the first email read, “Gift One: Open this first!” It was the before photo of the fountain.

The subject line of the second email read, “Gift One: Part 2”. It was the after photo of the fountain.

Courtesy Sarene WallaceThe subject line of the third email read, “Gift One: Part 3”.

Courtesy Sarene Wallace“When I opened the photos, I burst into tears, ” Sarene says. She was shocked. Trevor says listening was a key component of his gift. Over the years he paid attention to his mom’s everyday mentions of the fountain, of Bubby. Mothers, like fountains, supply our needs; to drink water, to try to connect us to previous generations. Sarene loves that in cleaning the fountain, “He honored me, but he also honored my mom.”

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Gina Ryder
Gina Ryder is a New York-based writer specializing in psychology, relationships, and health. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, and more. A former editor with The Huffington Post, Gina is a huge advocate for the power of personal narrative to humanize news, connect people and bring social understanding.