This week, I take my writing exercise from the book, Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich. In case you’d like to play, too, the directions are here:
(From writer-teacher Jim Magnuson) Write “My mother never…” at the top of a page, then complete the sentence and keep going. Read what you’ve written only after you’ve completed the draft.
My mother never taught us to dance.
She taught us to cook, mainly by giving directions from across the room while she was busy with something else. We learned “K.P.” duties early: cutting fruit for salad, peeling and trimming vegetables, husking corn and breaking dry bread into cubes for stuffing. Cooking came later. Cookies, cakes and puddings first, then pancakes and fried chicken and eggs. Mom handled the big stuff herself. Having participated in mealtime preparation for so many years, it surprised me, as a young adult, to realize how much I didn’t know about putting a meal together.
Mom taught us to clean at such a young age, I don’t remember her methods. By the time we were four, we were dampening clothes with the shaker bottle, and rolling them tight before packing them in the basket to wait to be ironed. By the time we were five, we were able to iron flat things: embroidered doilies, Dad’s red and blue handkerchiefs and the occasional pillowcase. We learned dusting and sweeping as we were learning to walk and talk. They were always there. As our size and ability grew, so did our list of chores.
Mom taught us how to take care of babies. We knew how to support the head while picking up or moving an infant. We could change a diaper and secure it in place with the large plastic-tipped safety pins. We knew the methods to calm a baby, to get a burp up, and to sooth a baby to sleep. We learned how to feed them until they could feed themselves, and how to entertain them when Mom needed a break.
She taught us to sew, first by letting us lay out and pin the pattern pieces, then cut them out for her. She taught us, next, the hand sewing: hemming and repair work that slowed a project down. Eventually, we were able to use the sewing machine for our own projects, or to help with hers.
Mom taught us other things by example only. She sketched pictures of lovely ladies with perfect lips and long eyelashes that made all of us swoon, and wish for that ability. She sang as she went through her busy day: sometimes to a song on the radio that played from its spot on top of the refrigerator; sometimes to a record playing on the record player; sometimes just a song she remembered and enjoyed. Whenever I sing “Mairzy Doats…,” I always hear Mom’s voice. When angry with Dad, Mom employed the silent treatment. We learned how powerful it was by watching Dad’s comical efforts to win back her good graces.
Still, she never taught us to dance.
When we had a party, with music coming from record player or band, Mom was always quick to get a dance with Francie Ricksgers, Uncle Henry or Peter or Lester “Doney” Gallagher. At wedding receptions, her sons and sons-in-law would always gladly step up. My father didn’t dance at all, and Mom loved a spin on the dance floor with one of the “good dancers.”
There were stories of Mom, as a tiny child, whirling around the dance floor of the Lake Inn with Jack Beussey, while their parents drank together at the bar. Near the end of her life, Mom called Jack. “You were my first love,” she told him. He attended Mom’s funeral, with his wife. We had, I thought, a good conversation about his long acquaintance with Mom, about his mother, my grandparents and how Lake Nepessing had changed. As we said good-bye, his wife hugged me close and said, “Alzheimer’s. He didn’t understand a goddamned thing you said.”
When Mom knew she was dying, she talked a great deal about her life. I was surprised when she said she couldn’t dance. I reminded her of all the stories, Jack Beussey and her on the dance floor, about all the parties and receptions where she danced. “Well, yes, I could manage,” she said, “if I had the right partner. That was it, though.”
“I never really learned how to dance.”