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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mom and the Grade School Spelling Cards

My sisters and I came naturally by our spelling skills and love of language. Our mother skipped over a semester of high school with high grades; our father was the only one in his Ohio State engineering class to take English required not required by the College of Engineering. Both of them, long before they met, had compiled little bound books of their favorite poems. My father helped me with math--or tried while I cried. My mother didn’t understand my tears at the sewing machine. Dad with his slide rule, Mother with her Singer: why didn’t I love these things, too? [Correction: It wasn't a Singer but a White.] But books we all loved, and I woke this morning, Mother’s Day, remembering my mother “giving me,” as we said, my spelling words.

The spelling card was a stiff, ivory-colored trifold. Each of its six sides contained a list, so each card lasted for six weeks of grade school. New cards were crisp and sharp-edged. Older ones, cards that had gone through several previous classes, had soft corners and the occasional underlined word or check mark. These battered, creased cards never wanted to stand up straight like the new ones when held from the bottom by the word-giver, but they were more interesting for of the traces of history they bore.

I suppose, though it never occurred to me at the time, that my satisfaction from the clear right-or-wrong of spelling gave me something of the comfort other people found in math--except for alternative acceptable spellings, but then, I liked those, too. Another way to look at the word! Another, different answer that was also right! Yes, that was fine with me, too. I’ve always though most of life is too complex for only one right answer.

But my mother went by the card, by the list. We sat at the dining room table, she held the card in front of her and pronounced the words. Because I was not only doing homework for the weekly test but also practicing for the annual spelling bee, I probably replied in the classic pronounce-spell-repeat pronounce form. I see her smiling, probably at my goofy earnestness. She was cheerful, encouraging and patient. It was one of those little things we did together that both of us enjoyed.

My mother would have been a good teacher. She wanted to teach English, but even with an academic scholarship to cover tuition her family could not afford to send her to college, and she became a secretary instead. When my sisters and I were in our teens, she went back to secretarial work, and years later she had a terrible time retiring. Her employers could not seem to replace her to their satisfaction, and they kept calling her back. She must have retired three times and even then worked part-time to cover absences and emergencies. My mother was a legendary speller everywhere she ever worked.

Back when my mother was in school, teachers gave good students personal gifts as prizes for outstanding work. One of my mother’s prizes had been Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, inscribed to her by her teacher. It was a hardcover copy with an illustrated pastedown on the front board. My mother and I and my two sisters—how many times was that book read in our house over the years and where is it now?

When you’re raising children, there is no way to predict what they will remember. I’ll talk to my mother later today and remind her of our spelling sessions and the Anne book. Through the telephone I’ll feel her smile, the same one I remember from years ago.


Michael J. Sheehan said...

Great tribute to your mom. I'm sure you told her about your latest Bee already.

P. J. Grath said...

We haven't talked about it yet, though I did send an e-mail report to the family. Thanks again, Michael, for a memorable day!

Dawn said...

You're right, there's no way of knowing which memories will stick. But aren't we lucky that we have such wonderful things to remember? Loved reading about your mother. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

These are wonderful memories. They're the kind a mother always hopes will stick, in place of the Incident of the Unfortunate Haircut or the Incident of the Undeserved Scolding. I'm glad that you can call your mother today and laugh together. Happy Mothers Day PJ!

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Dawn and Gerry. Yes, 'wonderful' is the word. I managed to catch my mother for a little chat just as one of my Illinois brothers-in-law was putting lamb chops on the grill. Did my mother know there would be lamb chops so she could take some of her homemade mint jelly to the feast? That will have to be a followup question.

Happy Mother's Day to all!