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MAY 1, 2012 12:51PM

Night School

Rate: 64 Flag

 The supper dishes are done, the counters wiped clean, and the yellow Formica table in the kitchen is transformed into my mother's night school.

My mother is not one to share her thoughts or feelings.  Not with me, not with anyone. But I know things.  I listen, I look.  I spy on her. I make myself smaller than I already am to watch her when she isn't looking. Go read a book. You're making me nervous. That's when I know I've been careless. 

At night I tip-toe down the stairs in my bare feet. I sit on the bottom step and peer around the corner. I can see into the kitchen without being seen.  I am Joanie the Spy.  My mother takes the black typewriter out of the closet along with her stenographer's notebook and shorthand practice books. Leftovers from my mother's business school days. A small business school for girls just out of high school. With their unlined faces and cheap shoes, they are determined to become secretaries at least until marriage.

 Click-clack-click-clack. The only sound in the kitchen. I watch as she times herself by the clock on the wall. Scowling, she writes down a number. She opens her shorthand book and makes squiggly lines I can't figure out. She writes row after row of tiny squiggles. She looks up in my direction and I quickly scoot up a step. I watch my mother teach herself the skills of a first rate secretary.

A few years go by. The yellow Formica table is gone. My mother sets up a new batch of materials on the round oak table in the kitchen. Her new kitchen night school consists of a slate and stylus, and she makes small holes with them on a piece of paper. She lets me feel the raised dots with my finger. She is teaching herself Braille. She says you can never know too many things. 

I close my eyes and imagine I am Mary Ingalls from the "Little House" book I am reading. I picture my long blonde hair and my blue eyes that don't see anymore as I pretend to read with my finger.

The square walnut table with the Tiffany lamp hanging over it is my mother's last kitchen table. She sips her half cup of coffee, and eats a small slice of the home made chocolate cake she has baked this morning. She reads the local paper with a large magnifying  glass. She turns to the obituaries first.  I am only home for a short visit from college. My mother and I cannot spend more than a day or two together without anger bubbling to the surface. I don't unpack my suitcase.

It is midnight when I walk out of the spare room for a glass of water. My mother is sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the kettle to whistle.  I stop just before she sees me. I am twenty, but I am still Joanie the spy. I still want to know her. I still want to know what she planned to do with all the things she taught herself in night school.

I look at the steam evaporating into the air, and think of the hopes and dreams around my mother's kitchen table.





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The hopes and dreams of your mother's generation could sometimes be realized by what the night schools had to offer. You have to respect her as well for always seeking to enrich her life with one form of learning or another. Beautifully written, Joanie.
"I don't unpack my suitcase." ow
and her granddaughter goes to Northwestern :D for some reason that just makes me fill up with tears
Funny, how you had to pussy-foot around her even when you grew into adulthood. How strange mother-daughter relationships can be. Rated.
You write the best closing sentences of anyone I know.
Glad you turned out just as smart & dedicated as your mom, but so much more giving.

You get everything that you share with YOUR daughter back 10 fold, including love, do I think you got it right this time Joanie girl. You surely did.
Sarah, I was always intrigued by mother's own version of night school in her kitchen.

Julie... me too.

Erica, ours was a particularly odd relationship.

Thank you, Cranky. :)

Amy, thank you. I get so much back from my girl.
JSR, many thanks~
It is about survival. Their generation had so much fear and they were focused on getting ahead. I spied too. Still do. It is fascinating.
This made my chest tight reading it - so much said here
Your mom was such a multifaceted woman, unfolding with each story...what a beautifully written glimpse of your mom, Joanie H! I love that name, Joanie the Spy.
Joanie, you always manage to paint such a nuanced picture of your mother--your child's eyes, interpreted through an adult's understanding. I am always amazed at how you manage to be gracious and understanding, even with a relationship that has brought you much pain.
They surprise us don't they? One minute doing something, to us or in general that we do not like and then another minute just doing something that we come at some stage to admire about them. Then in the end the movie stops. We can replay all the parts of the complex life, but in the end, we are unable to edit out the things that really stung.
I'm bedazzled by your ability to write so much in so few words. So many of our mothers saw their hopes and dreams boil away in a cloud of steam. Gorgeously written, as always. R.
There's a lot more going on here than just night school. The "last kitchen table," the "spare room," the "magnifying glass?" All seem like little mysteries and have me wondering. Nice piece.
Wow. Just wow. You are absolutely first rate in your ability to convey such a huge story in such a few words. RRRRR
one of your best pieces, joan. the story, distilled, told in picture sentences. few adjectives, no interpretation, letting the action tell the story. i could feel my feet on those stairs; i was a spy too. :)
God, Joan is this terrific. Rated.
Wonderful. Agree with Sarah Cavanaugh.
I think many mothers never finished what they wanted to. I know I haven't, even if these times are those of equality and other things that sound very pretty.
As always, your writing is like a graceful dance, never a word out of place, never a word that could have been trimmed out. Just perfect.
I think many mothers never finished what they wanted to. I know I haven't, even if these times are those of equality and other things that sound very pretty.
As always, your writing is like a graceful dance, never a word out of place, never a word that could have been trimmed out. Just perfect.
There's a lot of pain in this portrait -- hope unrealized, both yours and your mother's. Your mom was right that you can never know too many things, and it's sad that she kept you from knowing her.
Oh my, this is just fantastic, Joan.
I just love it.
Your Mom. You, the spy (I was a spy too). The click clacking...
My first thought was that it was Plan B -- Backup, although by what you've written about your Mom maybe it was more unfulfilled dreams.
Plan B as in, "You never know...better to be ready," in case you suddenly need to be the main breadwinner-type plan...? I don't know, but this was one of your finest, regardless.
Your work evokes sounds, colors, moods... and in this no one paints any finer or more powerfully than you do, Joanie.

These are words we can lean on and stretch out into to see and feel all that you have... The pieces you share about your mother always captivate, haunt and stun me with sadness. (They always leave me glad for the closeness you have with your girl...and make me grateful for what I have with mine.)

It feels to me as if you finally shout out to her through time and space...the echoes filling a cavernous room of what might have been...and what remains of all your memories.

I loved this...more than words...for all it communicates so magnificently. Again, my friend-this is ART as Tolstoy defined it!
Stunning writing. xo and infinite r's.
...and short-hand.
That seemed like such a strange mystery language when I was a child too, didn't it?
zanelle, I'm still such a snoop.

LammChops, thank you for reading. Sometimes writing makes my chest hurt...

clay ball, my mother had so much inside her that no one knew anything about.

froggy, my feelings are always so jumbled where my mother is concerned. I guess that's why I keep writing about her. :)

Sheila, it always made me sad to see her teaching herself these skills, knowing she'd never get to use them.

Deborah, I think many of our mothers felt like this. By the way, I love the word, "bedazzled."
I was all calmed down from a bad day and then you go and knock my socks off with such gorgeous writing about the sadness in so many missed opportunities... you and you mother's animus/disconnects, your mother's unrealized career dreams. How sad that the most fulfilling career was right under her nose (feet?) ... little Joanie. I wish I could hug you.
This little slice of your life is so poetic. The evaporating dreams were such a nice touch. You have a lot of finesse.
Usually the things you write about your
mother make me angry with her. This one was like a puzzle, and it made her more dimensional. I found myself wondering, too, what she gained from her night school in the kitchen, what she needed. As a writer, I most admired the changing table as time passed. As a human I most admired your honesty.
You channel your inner child's voice so well! The first paragraph is perfect...but I have a thing for yellow formica. "I am twenty, but I am still Joanie the spy. I still want to know her. " Makes me wanna cry.
She was multi-faceted, your mom, and it was admirable that she was training herself up for the next thing. I just wish she's have seen her beautiful quirky daughter through a clearer lens.
She was right with "you can never know too many things." I think your mom had aspirations she was afraid to share. Who knows with that typewriter ... maybe she had stories that needed telling too. She certainly has been the inspiration of many. Joan, I can totally relate wanting to know your mother ... mine was a great mystery to me in many ways too. And women of that generation (in my lineage, anyway) didn't show a lot of emotion. I always felt sad too for what could've been shared. You depict this well here, as usual.

On the upside, we get to be the recipients of your stories now. xo
I read this wanting both more and less at the same time. More, to learn more about your mother and when it was you stopped unpacking. Less, because the images of her at the tables felt almost too close. Beautiful and captivating.
jlsathre, many thanks for reading.

Amy, thank you for such kind words.

Candace, I have the feeling you needed to be a spy in your home too. Thank you so much for coming by with such kind words. xo
Poetry of the very top tier, no matter what any over-educated pecksniff might say. I wish I knew how to condense an entire lifetime into just the right elements that will bloom and flourish in the nutrients of a reader's imagination into that full-blown life, like you do.

On a side note, the anger between my dad and me would bubble up, too, within about a half hour after I arrived home for a weekend from college. He got so mad once he spent the weekend in a motel until I went back.
oh, and ditto what ann nichols said.
So achy pretty. If you could go back to the table for a moment, rest your hand on her shoulder and whisper something in her ear, what might it be?
I like when I see your understanding and forgiveness shing through. Maybe your recent experiences have brought you closer. You were both private people.
Night school... what a post!
More!! more!!rated!
I can see you and your mom, in the shadows. So many of your posts read like short stories: all of a piece, slices of life, going through the years, back and forth. Would be great if you developed some of these, Joan.
Simply stated and deeply profound, as always.
A lovely read!
You watched an ephemeral dream, and you've preserved it here. Children, parents--we are all so vulnerable.

Did your mother write, Joan? Where did you get your gift? I wouldn't have been at all surprised if your spying had turned up evidence that she was working on a novel or memoir.

You may have done this before and I missed it, but have you ever written a piece from your mom's perspective and voice? I should take my own advice, as I'm still laying the ghost of the Cindy who might have been, were it not for Mom's influence. Might be really hard to do, but possibly worth it in what we'd learn trying to walk in the shoes of someone who had held so much power over us, and used it to hurt.

It took me decades to understand that my mom's spiteful tongue and bitter outlook were learned at the knee of the master--my grandmother. And the two or three nightly cocktails didn't help, either!

Rated with a sigh. "For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'" SO glad you write, Joan.
Your writing just gets better and better. Love this one.
I love these "portraits" that you do. This was one of my favorites!
There's something so affecting about a woman teaching herself Braille, because "you can never know too many things." I wonder what she was seeking all those years, putting in all that time at all those tables, and if she ever found even a portion of it.
Aww, you must have felt so unwelcome in your home, "Joanie the Spy". Aching to know the mystery that was your mother. I hope you've been able to create your own home of your heart in your life now. I think "regret" is the saddest word in the English language, sadder than death, sadder than disease...all the might-have-been's and wish-I-had's....
I want to say that it's good your mother had those evening sessions for herself. Who knows if it helped anything in the long run but it gave her a place to dream.
Jonathan, thank you so much!

Mary, thank you for reading and commenting.

Ah, Vanessa. You make me smile, girl.

Bell, not wanting to be known was a loss for us both, I think.

Just Thinking, I think my mother wanted a LIFE. And she taught herself these skills in case opportunity knocked. She was a mystery to me.

Sally, put those socks back on, and give me a hug. :)

Miguela, thank you for that. I think there isn't much sadder than dreams evaporating.

Persistent Muse, wow. That is a comment I need to keep in my pocket to bring out on bad days... We are both so lucky to have the friendships we have with our girls.

Annie, thank you. One of my "things" is my long term memory. I have little short term memory left, but I can remember each table in each different kitchen and how deep an impression my mother's various kitchen tables made on me. I suppose it is partly because it is the room she was always in. Whether she was cooking, baking, or setting up her night school...
This was just perfect. So sad, so profound, and in so few words, it says so much. Beautiful and sad.
I need to learn from you how to be concise, and yet still fill volumes with what is left unsaid.
dirndl, I remember really liking that big yellow Formica table. And yes, it makes me want to cry too. Thanks for coming by.

Linnn, she was always in training for something. They just never materialized, unfortunately.

Thank you, Scarlett. I'm sure women of her generation didn't share much about themselves. But I never even knew how old she was until she died. She kept her secrets safe.

Thank you for reading and commenting, nilesite. I never unpacked my suitcase.

Chicken Maan, that your father would actually stay at a motel just breaks my heart. It's impossible to imagine we'd do that with our own children, isn't it?
Your mom's sadness here is palpable. It doesn't make the way she treated you and your family later any more forgivable, but it certainly does show her as human.
Your mom was driven by that distinctly mid-century ideal: hard work will make me a better self. You, dear Joanie, have broken the code on what made your complex mother tick. This is terrific stuff.

Dear Joan, I hope you don't think I meant you by my post above, as it was your mother I meant. I didn't have a difficult relationship with mom as you did with yours. I think your mom must feel regret at all the missed opportunities with you. Your need to know her is so palpable in your article. I felt bad for you.
boy, they never go away, the ghosts of our mothers, our mothers that we love. I wrote "loved" but then I realized I love my mother so much, as crazy as she was, as far away as she pushed me. it doesn't matter, does it joanie?

wonderful piece. I hope you pull these together and publish them. because they are beautiful. you never fail to make me stop and feel something I was not feeling, did not intend to feel before I read your words.
I loved this, Joan.
Did your mother's studies lead to the kind of work she wanted ? ~ and was she going blind ?
Wow! I have to say, I admire her determination. What a beautifully written vignette. Thanks so much!
Impeccable writing as always. You have several themes going here...that wistful desire most children have in wanting to know their parents...and unmet dreams and hopes. I do love what your mother taught you, "you can never know too many things".
greenheron, I've thought about your comment for two days and still have no answer. If I come up with something, I'll let you know. Thank you for "achy pretty." That's nice.

dianaani, it's interesting that you recognize that we are both private people. I have become less private the older I get. I'm not as afraid of being seen as my mother was. Like most people, I let in a certain few, and with a limited amount of information. My mother revealed nothing to anyone. Why hold on to your privacy so tightly? What purpose did it serve, I wonder? I could write an entirely separate post on wondering who my mother was.

jmac, thanks for coming by!

madhuri, thank you!

Lea, thank you. I hope to do that.

Pensive Person, I appreciate that.

Snippy, thank you so much for coming by and for that great suggestion. No, I have never written in my mother's voice, but the thought of trying it intrigues me. I'm pretty sure my mother was not typing anything but business letters for secretarial practice. She would have never written any type of memoir, because she didn't tell "family business." Ever.
I'm going to try to write something in her voice, and see where it leads.
Unbreakable, thank you so much.

trilogy, I really like that you call them "portraits."

Margaret, she never did use any of her "night school skills" unfortunately. I think it would have made her happy if she had been able to.

ccdarling, I couldn't agree more. The saddest thing is thinking what could have been.

Phyllis, it did give her a place to dream. I just wish some of her dreams were realized.
Poignant and sharp piece. Stark.
Alysa, thank you for coming by~

Jeanette, thank you. That is a great compliment.

Laura, thank you. It's easy to forget that our parents were young once, with their hopes and dreams intact.

Lezlie, thank you so much. I feel like my mother had so many layers I could never, will never crack...
This is such an important piece because this is so many women. So many children. Those hopes and dreams and the hours spent trying to get to them at night are important. I love your writing. I have missed it.
Wow. That hit right in the heart. r.
Gorgeous piece, Joan. Thanks for your comment on my Obama at Barnard post. I'm a really late bloomer myself, getting my BA at 61! It's never too late to grow and change.
Excellent, as always, and it drew me in from the first word.

I love how insightful and respectful your piece is.