The following recollection doesn't really have much to do with religion or skepticism. It does, though, reflect a facet of my mother's character, and she surely had a major influence on who I am and how I think, though not in the way she might have wished. In the spirit of the season, I thought I would include it.
My mother always considered herself a poet, or at least believed that she could write poetry, by which she meant verses that rhymed and had meter. But they were generally along the lines of those poems one read in the old “Ideals” magazines that we used to get that featured verses with lovely shallow sentiments interspersed with photos of flowers and landscape scenes. One of her favorite poets was Edgar Guest and we had hanging on our living room wall a copy of his poem, “It Takes a Heap of Livin’.”
If nothing else, our mother had the confidence to believe that she had a creative streak. In addition to her poetry, she masterminded a couple of what she referred to as “extravaganza” shows that were put on in the school auditorium as fundraiser events. One was a musical of sorts that was produced in the late 1940s that she titled “The House Beside the Road.” Although I was only three or four at the time, I have a recollection of seeing one scene from the show that featured two men in a horse costume singing “The Old Gray Mare, She Ain’t What She Used to Be.” I think that gives some idea of what we are talking about. The other show, which was put on when I was perhaps in the 4th or 5th grade, was more of a variety show that featured both young and adult performers and included, among others, a very unfortunate skit involving a biology teacher, a class, a skeleton, and a tape recording of the song “Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones,” for which the refrain, “I hear the word of the Lord” had been erased as being profane.
But beyond these events, my mother’s real literary interests were centered on poetry. And around the time I started high school, she had an opportunity to validate her talent. During the holiday season that year one of Battle Creek’s local radio stations (there were only two) put on a Christmas poem writing contest. They announced that each day leading up to Christmas contestants could submit poems that they had written for the contest. The entries had to incorporate a specific holiday-related word for that day, such as “bell” or “snow” or “reindeer.” Each day the winner would be announced on the air, his or her poem would be read, and he or she would be entitled to a gift certificate for a Christmas tree from one of the local tree lots.
My mother began submitting entries. And each day we would sit by the radio at the designated time to find out if she had won. The first couple of days she didn’t win, but by perhaps the third day the disc jockey announced her name. I can still recall the glow on her face as she listened to her poem being read on the air. She was euphoric. Finally, she had received validation of the talent that she always felt she had. From all of the entries submitted, the station had chosen hers. There would have been “high fives” all around, except this was decades before anyone thought to do that.
My mother had won but she also had a problem. The contest still had weeks to run, but there could only be one winning entry per household. So my mother began submitting entries in the name of my oldest sister, who was married and had her own family. And a couple of days later, my sister won a Christmas tree. Further confirmation of my mother’s evident abilities. So she kept going, submitting entries under the names of friends and acquaintances, in one or two cases without telling them in advance. Leading up to the end of the contest, she had won perhaps six or eight trees.
The final day of the contest was set for the morning of Christmas eve. Knowing this was the end, my mother, basking in her success and still feeling creative, submitted not one but two entries. It happened that the day was marked by a major snowstorm. Schools had already closed for the holidays, and many businesses were closing for the holiday or because of the weather. Whatever trees remained on the Christmas tree lots had been totally picked over by this point. Even so, we gathered around the radio to listen for the announcement of the final winning entry.
The DJ announced that, despite the fact that it was so close to Christmas, the station had received two entries on this final day of the contest and the station had decided to award prizes to both. Both of course were my mother’s.
This should have been cause for more celebration, but that’s not exactly what happened. Instead, we all simply looked at each other, silently asking the same question: Just how many people had been playing this contest? My mother hadn’t won every day, so there had to be some others submitting entries, but how many and who were they? I’m sure my mother had been envisioning that the radio station had selected her entries over hundreds of others. Maybe that was what happened, but maybe not. More likely the contest had failed to generate much interest, at least after the first few days. But the station couldn’t renege on its commitment to carry the contest through to its conclusion. So they did.
My mother never gave up on her interest in writing poetry. From my perspective, the quality of her verse never changed. In later years she began writing poems for a local advertising publisher that was basically looking for filler for a mailer they produced that otherwise consisted simply of local merchant advertisements and coupons. And she maintained a file of clippings of the poems that had been published. I am sorry that the file has been lost in the 25 years since her death. I had taken a creative writing class in college, and toward the end she and I would share thoughts about poetry. But we never spoke again about the Christmas poetry contest.
© 2013 John M. Phillips