LET INGA TELL YOU:
I’ve mentioned before that the problem with living in the same house for 45 years is that one has a tendency not to clean out files in a timely manner. One advantage of this, however, is that in my efforts to finally tackle this task, I came upon a folder of several hundred pages of letters written by my mother to me from the time I went to college until she died when I was 25. Over the last few months I have slowly savored them.
What is unusual about this correspondence is that it represents much of our interaction since it was well before e-mail, and during a time that long distance calls were reserved for dire emergencies. What’s especially nice is that my mother was a wonderful writer.
A disadvantage is that I don’t have my letters to her, just hers responding to me. And while I remember myself as a dutiful daughter who brought nothing but joy to her parents, I was obviously at times a total pain. And sometimes genuinely mean. But there it all is, in writing.
If she were alive today, I’d be doing some serious apologizing.
My mother was a third-generation feminist (I’m a proud fourth). Both her mother and grandmother had been rabid suffragists and proponents of women’s rights. The 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote) passed when she was a toddler.
Maybe this background is why “home arts” were not her strong suit. In one of her letters, she recounts her efforts to make new curtains for the common room of our small vacation home: “When I started to cut the thirty yards of patterned cloth, I discovered that the reason it was such a bargain was that the pattern hadn’t been printed straight. I finished a sample drape and it was beautiful except that the pattern was upside down.
“So I made the second one upside down also. If anybody notices, I will say that I thought they looked too suburban right side up. Then I did the kitchen side and they weren’t crooked, they were merely three inches too short. I solved this with a different kind of hanging unit. After that I took the rest of the week off curtains.”
While she may not have been a domestic goddess, she was a dedicated horticulturalist. When I was in college, my parents moved to New Jersey to a newly-built home on a hilly overgrown wooded lot that provided challenges even to as talented a gardener as my mother. Many of her letters chronicle her efforts to tame this jungle while preserving its natural charm. She referred to its different problem areas as the Slough of Despond, the Bosky Dell, and the Panama Canal. My first marriage was, in fact, at a tree stump altar in those very woods.
I’ve written before that my sum total writing training is a life time of letter writing — which is really what my columns are: letters I’m writing to a wider audience. But also, from the time I was around 8 years old, I started writing little stories and poems.
My mother always had nothing but praise for them no matter how awful they were (and believe me, they were), wanting me to experience the joy of writing for itself. But if there was one she particularly liked, she’d ask if she could buy it from me for a nickel (the rate ultimately went up to a dime), obviously subtly encouraging my better work. “Better” would be a relative term, as I found a whole folder of these after she died. I’m truly impressed with her faith in me.
My older granddaughter is 8, and she and I were talking about this during a visit earlier this year. I was telling her in earshot of her parents about writing stories that my mother then purchased if she particularly liked them. Writing should be fun, I said. You can make things happen any way you want them to. She wanted to know if she could write stories about how the mean girls get theirs. I said “absolutely.”
When we visited LA in May, my son Henry showed me a story that my granddaughter wrote that he had purchased for $20. (Definite inflation.) It was utterly charming (and not about mean girls), and gorgeously illustrated in vibrant colors. With a twinkle in his eye, Henry picked up the story off the counter where he’d placed it and said to her, “Now in Daddy’s job [private equity], I would let Mormor have this for $40.”
Alas, the counter top was damp and all the colors had run on the illustrations. My granddaughter turned to me and said, “Offer him $10, Mormor. It got wet.”
Jury is still out on which direction this young lady is headed. Or maybe not.
— Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org