John Michael continues his series Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise, reflecting on life and people encountered, sharing his family’s education and affinity for books and writing.
Throughout my life, I was always reluctant to show my writing to my mom. Her words were always kind, but her tone led me to believe that she was a little disappointed.
Mom and I were driving up Miller Grade, not long before she went into the care facility. I have been up and down Miller Grade a thousand times by car and a thousand times on foot. Our family has always lived on Normal Hill and, as a kid, the Grade was the quickest route to and from the Boy’s Club, my second home, and to Bert Lipps Swimming Pool.
The grade is steep, narrow, and winding and must have an extremely busy angel protecting it, because there should be some kind of wreck on that thing every day, in my mind.
There is an old house at the top of the Grade with about thirty or so steps running up to the front door. Mom mentioned that her parents almost bought that house when she was a kid.
It’s a wonder to me how events in childhood can form a human psyche for years to come. My mom’s and my uncle’s educations were of the utmost importance to my grandparents. They contemplated moving to Lewiston so that their children could receive a better education than they felt the Pierce School District could provide, way up there in the mountains.
What happened instead was my mom and my uncle got sent off to boarding schools in Spokane in their early teens. If you know my mom, you know she is very bright and was skipped ahead two grades while in grade school. She was the belle of the academic ball in Headquarters, the tiny logging town she grew up in.
She was also desperately lonely at Holy Names Academy boarding school, being taught by a bunch of rigid nuns with no warmth. She was also a little younger than most of the other girls who were also academic all-stars.
She started acting out because of her loneliness and was eventually kicked out for smoking and leading the other girls astray. She ended up graduating from humble Pierce High School before attending the University of Idaho where she was a Kappa sorority girl. Many of the women she met their were her lifelong friends.
I’m sure if my grandparents had tuned in to my mom and my uncle emotionally, they would have never sent them off to Spokane for boarding schools. My Uncle shares a memory of the massive abandonment he felt watching his parents drive off, leaving him at Gonzaga Prep.
It’s remarkable how they both handled the wound differently. Mom maybe shrank back some and allowed herself to be an above average student. But my uncle pushed himself, and brutally so in my mind, eventually graduating from Columbia Law School. He has been an overachiever all his life.
It’s a wonder to me how events in childhood can form a human psyche for years to come.
It’s funny how these wounds get passed along. Before my own first grade got started, we paid a visit to Mrs. Leroy’s classroom. Mom wanted me to have her because she had a good reputation for teaching kids to read. I found her cold and stern and told mom I didn’t want her. I could tell mom heard me, and she had some of her own misgivings.
Due to some overcrowding, I found myself in Mrs. Green’s room, to my delight, on the first day of school. I felt my heart sink when the school principal, Mr. Rogers, came into Mrs. Green’s room and called out several kids names, including my own.
He then marched us single file into Mrs. Leroy’s room where I proceeded to cry my eyes out for quite some time. Maybe she understood or sensed that I didn’t like her. Mrs. Leroy didn’t try and comfort me and I’m sure my tears set the tone between us for the rest of the year.
Mrs. Leroy had a couple of pets and I remember being jealous of a boy named Barry who helped her pass out papers during every task. (I’m not proud that I maybe had my hands around his neck choking him once on the playground.)
One day, Mrs. Leroy wadded up one of my classroom assignments in front of the whole class and threw it in the trash. I remember feeling deeply ashamed and found myself crying at my desk again.
Not long after that, I developed mono, they called it “the kissing disease” back then, which gave me a couple weeks of needed respite. I was always a tense learner after that and underperformed academically until my junior year in college when I finally figured out that I was as bright as the next guy.
Mom lacked confidence, which I am sure some of you find hard to believe. But I remember her asking me, when I was far too young, what she should do when it came to decisions in her life.
You can’t talk about my mom without mentioning books. She was a member of two book clubs right up until she died. She read only literary fiction and was probably what many would consider “a book snob.” She enjoyed stories of the West with Ivan Doig and Willa Cather among her favorites.
Mom secretly wanted to be a writer but, maybe for a lack of confidence or whatever secret reason, she never pursued it seriously. Going through her stuff, I found several empty journals I had given her over the years.
She did take a writing class from Kim Barnes over at LCSC while in her 60s one year. She nervously let me read an essay she had written for the class and it was excellent. Maybe she was just overly self-critical. I mean, how are you going to churn out sentences when you are comparing every one of them to a Willa Cather sentence?
She passed on that love of literature and the wisdom and self-reflection you can find there. I also heard real delight in her voice at some of my songs I would sing to her over the last few years. “Geoff, or John I mean,” (she was not a huge fan of me changing my name and, honestly, what mom would be) “that was really quite good.” I could tell from her tone that she meant it.