The setting sun left a shadowy stillness over the house. The guest room door had been left slightly ajar and the reading lamp emitted a shaft of light that sliced into the darkness of the hallway. Sounding like a person talking in their sleep, she uttered some incoherent word over and over again. I peeked in. Leaning forward in the rocker with two books on her lap, one a paperback novel and the other a dictionary, she had paused her reading to look up an unfamiliar word. So immersed in the process, she never noticed me at the door. With squinted eyes and quivering lips she slowly and deliberately struggled to find the correct pronunciation; Fo-lia-uj…fo-li-uj… fo·li·age. She had never encountered the word “foliage” before. Reading novels was a pastime she had only recently acquired.
Back in 1930 rural Illinois, language arts seemed of little value to a girl like Mary. Those skills weren’t required to work onion fields or clean the houses of wealthy people who lived in the nearby town of Homewood. Having already acquired more education than either of her parents, Mary quit school after the sixth grade and took on the subordinate role of a housemaid, a position she thought she was well suited for.
It seems at that period in small town America most young girls weren’t encouraged to be anything other than wife, mother and homemaker. That time was often considered to be an age of innocence, but looking back on the stereotypic gender roles, I’m not sure it was all that innocent.
As a result of her limited education, Mary would enter into adulthood possessing a poor self-image, and in her own words she would describe herself as, “Dumb.” Hesitating to join in on conversations, she believed she had nothing of value to offer. More humbled than she was embarrassed, Mary assumed everyone was smarter than she, and even worse, she accepted that stature in life.
For a person of such little education and poor self-esteem she did a brilliant job of running a household. She budgeted money the old fashion way; placing it in designated envelopes and hiding it in the family bible. A hard working homemaker, devoted mother and wife, she nursed her husband Ed through his first bout with tuberculosis and when he relapsed and had to be institutionalized she was left to care for four children on little income. She was denied federal assistance because as the agent told her, “He had never seen such a well managed household”; apparently she had done “too good” of a job with the little she had. Family members provided support of which she kept a record. When Ed recovered and returned to work, she slowly repaid that entire debt.
Mary loved Ed and he loved her. They spent their retirement days together fiddling around the house and just enjoying each other’s company. Mary liked to cook and Ed liked to eat; that made for a great partnership. Life turned empty after Ed’s death and she eventually moved to the Wisconsin woodlands where she was welcomed with open arms into the home of her daughter Joanne and son-in-law Ron. Her activities were limited by the effects of aging and she spent the bulk of the day crocheting. Joanne hoped she would develop another interest and suggested reading some novels. Mary however never read books and showed zero interest in the proposal.
Hazel, a friend of Joanne’s and coincidentally a teacher, suggested that Mary might enjoy books written for middle school kids; the print was big, the stories short but interesting, and the vocabulary was moderately challenging. Hazel immediately went about putting together a sack of books for her.
Mary, still not sold on the idea pulled out a book and began reading; more out of courtesy than desire. Unexpectedly she found the stories interesting and slowly worked her way through the entire bag. Upon returning the books she was pleased to find that Hazel had another sack full waiting for her. Even more pleasing was discovering that Hazel also enjoyed the books, they weren’t just for kids. This new found aptitude caused Mary to feel good about herself and maybe even more whole as a person. She continued asking for books until Hazel finally had to tell her, “I don’t have any more to share.” Mary had read them all.
In the months to come, she would amass her own library, becoming a bonafide bookworm and a fan of series like Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” and Jan Karon‘s “The Mitford Series”.
When Mary returned to Illinois for extended visits, her luggage always included a supply of novels. Armed with her current selection, she’d head down to the family room and make herself comfortable in the sofa chair next to the fireplace. With the fire roaring and a tall glass of water on the table next to her, Mary disappeared into her literary abyss, stopping only to look-up those words she wasn’t familiar with.
The oven-like heat could be felt rising up the stairwell as I went down to check on her.
I would ask her, “Mom, would you like me to turn off the fireplace?”
She always had the same response, “No, it feels good.” And then with a sip of water followed by a blissful smile, she would again disappear into her novel.
That enduring image of her brings to mind another word:
pre·cious adjective \ˈpre-shəs\.
1. Of high worth; valuable.
2. Highly esteemed; cherished.
3. Dear; beloved.
I never thought of her as being dumb. Quite the contrary, Mary’s kind heart, tenacious drive and determination to overcome adversity had proved to be an inspiration to many people over the course of her life, and especially to a particular son who shared her struggle to read and spell.
Encouraged by her example, that son today has developed a passion for a good book and a well told story, along with a propensity for spending hours at his computer writing stories for a blog.