Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Me and Mom and four-letter words


I cannot footnote this idea, don't know who said it first or best or when or where, but it's one of those lines that writers hear somewhere along the way and never forget.

Well, some writers.  Me, for one.

Here's the idea:  that basically imaginative writers, when they commit to paper, seek to gain the approval or no more than three or four people. In other words, when these words appear magically before me on the screen, I'm thinking of--well, I'm somehow conscious of--the approval of just a couple readers. No one really writes for the masses; most of us write for very, very few readers.

Which prompts the question, "Well then who, pray tell?"

In my case, it's not my peers (I have none; I'm retired), not my profs (they're gone by now), not my children (who don't read much of what I write--and with good reason), and not my students (who don't read much at all).  

That leaves my wife? 

Bingo. 

I do not want to disappoint her or make her blush, and I hate it when she rolls her eyes, which happens anyway, time after time in snafus that have absolutely nothing to do with the letters presently appearing on this screen. (For instance, the time I got on the wrong plane and discovered somewhere over Lake Michigan that I wasn't going west to California.) 

How about my father? Sure, but I wrote two novels about fathers and sons, both of which were embarrassments to him, which suggests that the degree of restraint he imposed upon my imagination was, at best, minimal.

Who's left? Mom. Yup, Mom.  No kidding--Mom.

And now she's no longer here! (he said, grinning demonically).

It was, I think, 1980, when she made me an offer she assumed I couldn't refuse.  "I'll buy you the very best electric typewriter you can find," she said (before Steve Jobs created an empire), "if you promise you'll never write another dirty word." (She might have said naughty, by the way.)

We lived, back then, in the George Carlin era, so I might have run through his list of television no-nos to check on her exact definitions. After all, as a boy I was roundly punished for gee or gosh and golly, to darn and dang and heck. Would their use mean sending that brand new Smith-Corona back? Perhaps we should have written up a treaty with negotiated definitions.

She created--as mothers can, or so says Phillip Roth--the kind of bind from which one cannot deftly extricate him or herself. If I said yes, I was committed by covenant (not a word to banter in my Calvinist tradition). To say no, on the other hand, was signing Satan's dotted line. For someone who grew up with the 1928 synodical prohibitions against wordly amusements, my mother had a knack for playing the God card.

No matter how wonderful that Selectric looked, I knew I couldn't say yes. So I told her I'd get by on my own and bought a tank of a typewriter, second-hand, thereby pitching my tent toward Sodom. 

And now my mother is gone.

So I've been thinking that one of these days I'll embark on something like Portnoy's Complaint for Dutch Calvinists. How about Fifty Shades of Orange? Something really scandalous, sure to sell.

Ah, shoot!--I'm dreaming. 

My dissertation was a novel, my first, something titled Home Free. My graduate school committee claimed they liked it greatly, and awarded me the coveted Ph.D. 

"But there's just one thing, Jim," one of them said that day in a faculty suite. "I thought I should tell you--" he broke into a smile, "you're not particularly good at swearing."

And I'd typed the blame thing on a second-hand Royal I bought with my own money.  

It's a story I never told my mother, of course.

A week ago she died.  So how is it that just now, right here over my shoulder, I'm sure I heard her giggle?

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