I’m writing this because there’s a nice lady in northern Kansas to whom I owe at least $1,837,817.
It’s Mother’s Day. It’s time I acknowledge my debt.
Social Security tells me I have earned that amount (so far) during my employment.
My heart tells me my mom made me employable, at least at newspapers, in spite of great odds.
And I’m not her only grateful beneficiary.
My four brothers and I, together and separately, have owned many thousands of books, sitting on our shelves or stored on our devices.
We read and tell stories all the time. And because Rosemary Wenzl read hundreds of adventure stories to us, we chose lives of adventure, as a journalist, and cops and mountain climbers and nurses and travelers and as talkative storytelling companions.
Rosie started it.
Rosie will hate reading this story. She will roll her eyes.
But I can prove what I say. Her letters are as good as her stories.
Here’s Rosie, writing years ago about her childhood pony:
“The horse I rode most of the time, from the time I was six or seven, was my grandfather’s horse, Tony.
“He was beautiful and very gentle. I would get on him by leading him to a rail fence, and then I’d climb the fence and get on his back.”
Do you see that?
Any professional writer will tell you: That’s a good hook, a tight little scene, all visual action.
Rosie then shows Tony as a compelling character:
“He took real good care of me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get him to run with me … he would run when older people rode him, but never with me.
“I never used a saddle, so I was always falling off. He would stop the moment I left his back, and stand still until I got up and led him somewhere I could climb up a stump or a fence. I spent more time leading than riding, I think.”
See? You’re right there, watching Tony love and protect little Rosie. But she is already hinting that something’s coming. Loss, maybe:
“We kept him until he died of old age.
“I would ride bareback, with bare feet, all the way into those big hills of the Flint Hills off to the west; I’d ride all day, hour after hour, and no one at the house worried about me, because they knew I was with Tony. I would ride like that day after day.”
And next? More sweet scene, but Rosie is also ever-so-slightly drawing out the suspense, the way an archer ever-so-slightly draws a bow tighter:
“The pastures were full of wildflowers.
“In summer I was an outside girl, barefoot from spring to fall.”
Then the archer lets go:
“After my Dad was killed in the war, and after we moved into town, that was the worst part of my life.
“I couldn’t ride Tony anymore.
“I never rode again after that.”
Her stories were like that – a beginning and a middle, leading to an ending, happy or sad.
It’s not “The Iliad” or “The Godfather.” But those simple and visual scenes are what keep readers reading and listeners listening. When done with a little stinger at the end, like that one, it works almost every time. She’s a natural.
Rosie told stories from the time we were toddlers. We asked her to tell us, again and again, how as a little girl one day she reached up to get the eggs from the chicken nest and pulled out a bull snake instead. We’d laugh. She’d cover her face with her hands after every telling.
None of her stories had the sweep of stories told by Dad, who read deeply and loved history. But her stories were often better because they came from moments in life.
Growing up in a house of storytellers made our lives different and our futures rich. But it was Rosie who did the heavy lifting, by reading to us – multiple children’s books every night – when we were little.
She read to us when she was sick, tired, pregnant, or put out with five little boys. She’d hold two boys on her lap and read to all five.
And then one day, before I started first grade, Rosie brought home a sack full of small, plastic, multicolored alphabet letters.
She sat me on her lap in her bed and began to lay down the letters on the window shelf, while she sounded out the sounds:
C – A – T.
D – O – G.
M – O – M.
I remember the thrill of that moment. I can do this myself.
Reading or listening to a good story is like hopping onto a magic carpet and flying to Mordor or Montana, or to the moon. It’s magic. She rolled that rug out for five of us.
By the time my brothers and I got to first grade, we were all on fire. We pulled all the books out of the classroom shelves and read them, again and again and again. When Gary and I discovered book clubs a few years later, Mom discovered we’d been ordering books with money she and Dad did not have. She vetoed the book clubs but started taking us to the public library. We came home with sacks full.
From reading came writing.
And so I became employable, in spite of being so dumb as a farm kid. Dad told great stories, too, but Rosie had to shield me from Dad, who as a farmer needed help I was not equipped to give.
“I hope this whole reading and scribbling thing leads to something,” he once said. “Because you’re the dumbest farm kid I’ve ever seen.”
Stay away from writing, he also said. “Journalists work in poverty.”
But Mom disagreed.
“Go,” she said. “Do what you love.”
She didn’t realize what she did for us. She still doesn’t.
It was not her intention, in reading stories, to turn me into a reporter, or turn my brothers into mountain climbers and cops and foster parents and adoptive parents and nurses and people on fire to read every book and visit every Civil War battlefield in the country, which is pretty much what Gary did.
She read to us to love us.
That was why.
I got her to admit that one day:
The reason Rosie rode Tony all the time as a girl was the same reason she read to us as a mom. She rode Tony and read to her boys because she was alone – and lonely as a child.
Her mother died when she was 2.
Her dad was killed in World War II when Rosie was 8.
She was raised on that Flint Hills ranch, miles from other children, by aunts and grandparents who didn’t see that Rosie – like all little children – craved hugs and attention.
“I swore when I had kids that you would always be hugged and loved,” she said. “Because I never got enough.”
Growing up unloved made her appreciate love more.
Suffering turned her into a good mom.
“He got a ride to the end of the driveway, which was quite a ways from the house,” she wrote one day, about her last day with her dad.
“I saw him get out — he had hitchhiked home — and I saw him reach in and take a big bag out of the car, his clothes and other belongings.
“He was wearing his Army uniform.
“When he walked across the meadow, I wasn’t sure it was him.
“ I really think I did know, but was afraid I wasn’t really seeing him – and if I moved, the image would go away.
“Anyway, I finally realized it was him – and ran to meet him.
“And I ran as hard as I could run.
“And when I got to him, I jumped into his arms.
“And I held onto him real tight.”
Can you feel the lump in my throat? She’s a natural.
So forgive me, Mom.
I know you’re put out with me for writing this.
You’ll dislike it because you always tell the truth.
And the truth (as you would tell it) is that you never went to college.
Never got a scholarship.
Never got more than average grades in high school English, or anything else.
You will also say that millions of other moms do the same for their children. And you will be right.
And yet here we are:
And me. And your boys.
Me, employed. The boys – my brothers, your sons – all men now. Good fathers, good grandfathers – and good storytellers all.
Ha ha, Dad, for doubting.
And thank you, Mom, for never once doubting.
And Happy Mother’s Day to all.