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Mama Teaches a Lesson As She Learns One

By Betsy Ramelkamp / October 21, 1996



Mama was trying to improve herself. Again. It was public speaking this time.

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The year before, it had been leather work. She made, among other objects, a large handbag, tooled with such interesting designs that you hardly noticed the smell, at first. She said the smell would fade, and the bag would last a lifetime.

She was right about the "lasting" part. Every now and then we would open a little-used drawer and know, immediately, without looking, that Mama's old leather-worked handbag was hidden there.

There had been other notable efforts at self-improvement, the results of which were scattered throughout the house.

We all applauded her announcement that she had enrolled in an adult-education class in public speaking that met at the high school. Public speaking leaves no material traces.

"But I don't know what to talk about," she moaned, a week before her first assignment was due. We were all in the living room that evening, reading. Mama held a notebook and a pencil, ready for suggestions. "I've led such a limited life. Married. Moved around a bit. Had five children. Who wants to hear about that?" She looked accusingly around the room.

Dad rustled his newspaper and continued reading. This was a discussion he didn't want to enter.

"Pick anything," suggested sister Jean. "Take a current event out of the newspaper. There's lots going on in the world right now that you could report on."

"We always have to tell about 'how I spent my summer vacation,' when school starts," ventured my kid brother, Eddie. "Why don't you talk about that?"

Mama cocked her head. "How did I spend my summer vacation? Well -" she began counting on her fingers, "I cooked meals for approximately three months, that's around 90 days, three meals per day, makes 270 meals. I cleaned house; that's 90 days of housecleaning. I worked in the garden, at least an hour a day; that's 90 hours of gardening. There was the big weekly washing. Twelve full days of laundry in all. Which of these activities would make the best topic, do you suppose?" she asked sweetly.

Silence greeted this question. Then: "Don't forget, I took you to the World's Fair in San Diego," reminded Dad.

"Oh yes," she said, looking indulgently at my father, "And I did enjoy that so much, dear." She paused. "So." She made a mark in her notebook. "That's one day at the fair."

"But, Mama," I objected. "You did lots of other things. Remember how the whole family went to see 'Ruggles of Red Gap' on the Fourth of July? It was a matinee. Then at night we had the fireworks with all the neighbors, in the streets?"

"And Bobby's father accidentally set off the pile of fireworks with one spark?" added my big brother, David. "It was keen while it lasted. About 90 seconds."

"I'll never forget that," Mama chuckled. "But I don't think I can write a whole speech on that."

"Well, there was the time we went camping on the desert, near Palm Springs," I said. "And Daddy built a bed in the car out of boards. He laid them from the back of the front seat to the back of the back seat. And he put quilts, blankets, and pillows on it, and said that you two could sleep quite comfortably up there, and Jimmy could sleep down on the front seat, because he's the smallest."

"Yeah," Eddie took up the story. "And the rest of us had to sleep outside. Man, I never knew sand was so hard!"

"And," I continued, "about the middle of the night the boards must have shifted apart, and you and Daddy began to fall through your 'bed' onto the seats below."

HERE Jean interrupted, laughing, "And Jimmy sat up yelling, 'What's happening? What's happening?'

"When you untangled yourselves, Daddy tossed the boards outside and you two spent the rest of the night sitting up in the back seat. None of us got much sleep after that."

"But did you ever taste anything as good as breakfast cooked on an open fire next morning?" Dad hurriedly changed the subject. "M-m-m. That bacon sizzling, and Mama's pancakes. We ended up having a fine time on that trip, though we were a bit sleepy the next day."

Suddenly, everyone had a favorite comical story to relate. We spent the next half hour talking and laughing.

"Enough' Enough!" giggled Mama, wiping her eyes. "I can't tell any of those stories in class. I'd break up laughing." She chewed on her pencil for a moment. "I think I'll speak on 'how to improve oneself through adult education.' "

"A fine topic," said Daddy.

"Not exactly sparkling," commented David, "but noble."

" 'Noble' is good enough," said Mama.

We quieted down. I looked at Daddy, who had gone back to the news, and at Mama, now making notes.

"By the by," I began. I needed to say it. "Did we ever thank you for showing us such a wonderful summer?"

"How nice of you to mention that, dear," said Mama, and her smile brightened the room. "Just the way you all were so happy, enjoying everything we did together, even the mistakes, was thanks enough."