My mother was a writer, too. In high school she was editor of the newspaper, a role that in those days, in Queens, the way my mom told it, put you a step above prom queen. Undeniably a beauty, she had glossy dark hair, full lips, and terrific cheekbones—in photos she’s got the sultry pout of an Ava Gardner but the gimlet eye of Katherine Hepburn. Though as young women we looked nothing alike, now when I look in the mirror, I see her. That startled and depressed me at first, but not any more.
She wrote in college, which she had to leave before finishing. When I was still small, she enrolled in an adult education class at the high school. The one night a week she attended “Creative Writing”, dinner was a hurry up job. I remember her, dressed in her good, rose-colored cable-stitch cardigan, slinging food onto the table. Back then, I knew I was a reader, but I wasn’t at all sure what a writer was. Books were organic things that sprang up of their own accord, like wild-covered mushrooms on the front lawn after a night of rain. The impulse to write still lay curled up and waiting inside me.
After I left home, my mother got her college degree. She took night classes locally, and one summer she went away to Brown University for an intensive writing course. I recently found the letters she wrote to my father while there. It was the first time they’d ever been apart, other than her being hospitalized for her five—you read that right—Caesarean sections. Two or three of my siblings still lived at home, and my mother’s glee at being away from the domestic front brings tears to my eyes. She wrote him long descriptions of her classes, her profs, her fellow students and the intense conversations they had, all in her slashing script that dented the paper so that if you turned the sheet over you could read it backwards, with your fingertips. God knows what my father made of those letters. (Of course they didn’t phone—it was long distance.) I imagine he was glad for her—he never could figure out how to make her happy. Yet he must have been anxious, too.
What made me write this post was coming across, in that same stash of her papers, a copy of The Writer magazine, dated June 1977. My mother had a subscription, to my surprise. That issue features as its special market “Women’s Magazines and Home and Garden Publications”. It’s astonishing how many there were back then, not to mention how well they paid. My mother circled likely markets—Modern Maturity, Redbook, Viva, Playgirl. Playgirl!? I imagine she was taken with the note that they were looking for humor and satire, genres she favored. On June 7, she noted, she had sent her “bowling stry” to Talk, formerly GirlTalk.
In those same papers, I found a photo-copied article from the February 1981 issue of The Writer. She must no longer have had a subscription—the cover notes that it is the property of South Huntington Public Library. It also notes that one of the articles is “Point of View in the Short Story”, by Tricia Springstubb. By then I’d published in some of those very magazines she’d marked—not Playgirl, unfortunately, but Redbook, McCalls, Good Housekeeping. My little blurb notes that my first YA novel, “Give and Take” is about to come out that spring.
In the article, I write how every writer suffers from claustrophobia, “the my-skin-fits-so-tight-I-long-to burst-its-seams kind. As they grow older, most people become undercover dreamers ( i.e. readers), but writers go on shamelessly imagining what it would be like to live inside another skin.” Now, when I talk about why I write, I usually say it’s because I’m so greedy, one life isn’t enough. It’s nice to discover that I was saying something similar so long ago—sort of like seeing my mother’s bones emerge in my own face.
She and I never talked about writing, except for my telling her when I’d had something accepted or rejected. I didn’t even know she’d submitted to national magazines. What I knew was how essential for her was the process of writing, putting external form to feeling and thought, trying on other ways of viewing the world and always, always, trying to tuck in a laugh—and how, slowly, the same became true for me. She was, I now know, the first writer I ever met.
Wish you could read this, Mom!