From 1952 to 1963, my mother wrote a weekly column for the Wheaton Gazette, a small-town newspaper in western Minnesota. As the editor’s wife, she was expected to write a homemaker column filled with household tips and recipes. She called it “Over a Coffee Cup” and said she hoped to “amuse rather than amaze the reader.”
Every Sunday night she’d brew a cup of coffee, open her portable Smith Corona typewriter and sit down to bang out another column. The Gazette paid her two dollars a week. I didn’t read her columns or pay much attention to them when I was a kid other than to know the Sunday night routine included, “Don’t bother me, I have to write this darn column.”
When I recently learned I was chosen to be a reader columnist for the News Tribune, I dug out the file with some of Mom’s old columns. I hadn’t looked at them in years.
Mom was not the stereotypical small-town housewife. She was a professional with a college degree in social work. Her cooking was mediocre at best, she didn’t like housework and she claimed to have a brown thumb for gardening. Her columns contained no recipes and few household hints. She wrote about life.
She devoted one piece to her experience with the Northwest Airlines lost-and-found department when my brother left his camera under the seat of the plane. In another she told how she’d flunked sewing in eighth grade. In a Christmas column, she described her first experience in the big city at the symphony: “It wasn’t until halfway through the selection that I discovered they weren’t still tuning their instruments. . .”
Her writing was warm and amusing but not groundbreaking. So I was surprised to discover that in October 1962 she wrote about politics. And what she said could have been written today.
She described a rally for President Kennedy’s visit to a rural Minnesota bean feed. “The speakers were lesser lights of the organization, but they cajoled, pleaded, praised their cause. They derided, belittled, deprecated and disparaged the opposition. The crowd responded by clapping and booing in the right places. They loved it.”
But, she said that this was a poor way to elect someone. “The issues were clouded by the charged atmosphere, the circus atmosphere.” She went on to suggest we needed intelligent, discriminating voters. She advocated for the continuation of televised presidential debates as a way of truly knowing where candidates stood.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have stood behind her and said, “You go, Mom.” In those days, her column must have caused a backlash — not because it was controversial but because she didn’t know her place.
Mother lived in a time when it truly was a man’s world. Jobs and promotions went to men, qualified or not. She worked for the county. When her director resigned, she applied for his job. The board was very clear they would only hire a man.
I remember the day she came home and said, “Well, they picked the worst of the lot.” Later she discovered her new boss was writing reports on visits he’d made to people long dead. She was the one who had to turn him in. After he was fired, they hired another man.
She didn’t write about that, of course.
Mom died while I was still a teenager. She didn’t live to see women in careers once open only to men. She didn’t live to see a woman nominated for president who articulated her issues and debated them with confidence and poise. But I believe she would have been proud of the progress we’ve made and determined to see that we don’t lose what we’ve gained.
Her Sunday night missives blessed me with the love of writing. I wish I could go back and tell her, “You amused, but more importantly, you amazed.”
Linda Norlander of Tacoma is a writer and a retired nurse who worked for many years to improve end-of-life care. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org