The year is 1975. We’re living in Sheridan, Wyoming. At the age of thirteen, I insert a piece of paper into the typewriter and turn it on. Its hum fills the living room and mingles with the whine of the electric mixer in the adjacent kitchen. While Mother prepares cake frosting, I type the assignment for my seventh grade creative writing class. When I’m done, I remove the sheet from the typewriter and carry it into the kitchen where Mother has just finished decorating the cake. With my limited vision, I admire her handywork while she scans my story.
The prompt is to write about someone who walks by a door in a wall that is usually closed but now open. Out of curiosity, my character steps through the open doorway. It is dark, and all of a sudden, a green monster jumps out. That is as far as Mother gets before saying, “Oh, you don’t want a green monster here. Let’s see…”
She strolls back into the living room, sits down at the typewriter, and inserts a clean sheet of paper. She verbalizes what she is typing since I can’t read print that small. When she’s done, my ugly story of a little girl attacked by a green monster and then waking up in her own bed is transformed into a wondrous tale of a child who discovers a new world after walking through an open door in a wall. Why didn’t I think of that? A day or so later, the teacher hands me back this story with an A+.
Fast forward a year later. In the eighth grade, I’m assigned to write an essay about cancer for Science. We’ve moved to a bigger house with a study upstairs where I can work in peace and quiet. This time, I sit and listen while Mother reads me the research material from the public library and types the essay, again verbalizing each word or phrase as it appears on the page.
As the deadline looms, she keeps me home from school one day so “we” can finish it. This is great fun, I think, as I listen to her read and type. Fascinated by the topic, I realize that Mother could get cancer if she doesn’t stop smoking. When I point this out to her, she says, “Oh hush. I’m trying to write this for you.” I receive another A+.
Fast forward to high school. As a junior, I’m taking another creative writing class. Too busy teaching English and communications and directing plays at Sheridan College, Mother leaves me to my own devices until one night when I can’t think of anything to write. “Let’s see,” she says, sitting down at the typewriter.00
A while later, she has produced a thought provoking tale about an old man in New York City and how badly others treat him. “This is better than anything you’ve written before,” says my teacher.
Two years later, as a freshman at Sheridan College, I’m taking an English class from one of Mother’s colleagues where I’m assigned to write a paper on Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” This time, I’m determined to do it myself. With the help of the college’s work study program, I find a student willing to accompany me to the library and read material on tape. When I get home, I type the paper which mostly consists of a description of the story, some background information on Shirley Jackson, and what reviewers say about her work. When I finish, I show it to Mother. “Well, it’s nice, but I think we can do better,” she says.
She sits down at the typewriter, inserts a blank sheet of paper, and in a matter of hours, my basic English 101 paper is transformed into a scholarly essay. Her colleague loves it. From that moment on, I don’t even try to write papers myself.
Fast forward another two years. I’ve gone away to school, to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where Mother doesn’t know any of the faculty. Late one night, I’m sitting in my dorm room, staring at a blank sheet of paper in my own electric typewriter. I’m supposed to write a paper about Duke Ellington for a jazz appreciation class. After listening to material another student recorded and making notes in Braille, I haven’t a clue where to start. Mother’s not here, and the paper must be turned in the next day. What do I do?
Then it comes to me. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” I type it in quotation marks and then continue. Duke Ellington’s life, his music, dates of publication and performances, his style, my impressions, all flow out of my fingers. It’s as if Mother was writing this paper, but she’s not. She’s 150 miles away, snug in her bed with Dad. The paper comes back a couple of days later with an A+.
I mail it home to my parents. Dad, a jazz enthusiast, gives it a rave review. Mother says nothing. I don’t care. I can write my own papers and still get good grades.
Fast forward again. In 1999, Mother has been diagnosed with cancer. On a hot summer day, I sit at my Mac computer in my air conditioned apartment. For the past ten years, I’ve been living independently and working as an activities assistant in a nursing home. I’ve just been bitten by the writing bug.
I’m crafting a piece that I’ll send to a contest. It’s a personal essay about how one of my sixth grade teachers who threatened me with an eighteen-inch ruler saw the error of his ways and wrote me years later to apologize. I know better than to show this to Mother. Instead, after proofreading it a million times, printing it, then reading it again with my closed-circuit television magnification system to be sure there are no mistakes, I mail it off. Six months later, Mother’s gone. My essay wins second place in the contest and is published a year later in SageScript, Sheridan College’s literary journal, with a note dedicating it in loving memory of my mother, Joan H. Johnson.
Looking back, I realize that in her own way, Mother was teaching me how to write. While she wrote my papers, I couldn’t go outside or listen to music in my room. I had to sit quietly and listen so that when I grew up and she was no longer around, I could do my own writing. She also wanted to be a writer, but family and other obligations kept her from pursuing her dream. Now that I’ve published three books and am working on a fourth, she can live that dream vicariously through me.