Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mom and Gail

My mother was a very smart woman who, in high school, pursued what was then called a “commercial” course of study. It prepared young women to become clerical workers and secretaries. The other option was the academic track which would lead to a college education that few families in my grandparents’ circumstances could afford.

In her senior year my mother took shorthand. One of her year long assignments was to become a pen pal of another student. Mom’s pen pal was Gail and the two of them wrote to each other in shorthand. I don’t know how many of my mother’s classmates maintained their relationships with their pen pals beyond graduation, but my mom and Gail dropped the shorthand and wrote to each other for almost 50 years.

They never met nor did they discuss the possibility of meeting and came to be like strangers on a train (though not in the Patricia Highsmith sense of that term). While I doubt that they were candid with each other by contemporary standards—my mother always believed that there were certain things you just didn’t tell other people—I know they told each other a lot that I doubt they shared with family or friends closer to them.

I came to love Gail’s letters as much as my mother did. They were warm, bubbly novellas of acquisition and material content. Gail married the kind of guy who went out for a pack of cigarettes and came back with a Cadillac. Each of their three children had a television set in a time when parents were not as indulgent of children as they are now. Gail did occasionally allude to the possibility of overspending but these hints of unease were buried under detailed descriptions of appliances, curtains, clothing and cars.

There was some discussion of books in these letters and Gail would send my mother books that were “just too weird for me.” Thus did I first read Flannery O’ Connor (Everything That Rises Must Converge) and Joyce Carol Oates (Expensive People).

I still remember being enthralled by the first line of Expensive People: “I was a child murderer.” I read on to find out if this meant the narrator was a child who murdered or an adult who murdered children. I was hooked and read Joyce Carol Oates for years, though I now realize I can never keep up.

I never saw my mother’s letters to Gail except in one circumstance. A professor of mine with whom our family was friendly called to see if he could borrow my mother’s typewriter. He had something important he had to work on and his typewriter had died. I told him he could use the typewriter without asking my mother. I could tell she wasn’t entirely pleased to lend her Olivetti, but the man asking for it was a college professor and she both liked and respected him. He assured both of us that he would have it back in a tick. He kept it for three weeks. My mother said nothing.

When the typewriter was finally returned, my mother set to work on a letter to Gail. She left the letter in the typewriter. I happened to read the opening paragraph. My mother was very angry at me and displeased that I had loaned her typewriter without asking her first. I couldn’t discuss this with my mother because I would have to reveal that I had read the letter, but my mom had the satisfaction of letting me know how she felt without having to provoke a confrontation.

A few years later when my father abruptly left the family, I also got another glimpse into what my mother said to Gail. I was filled with advice for my mother after my father left. We were both distraught, but my mother seemed paralyzed in a way that threatened every aspect of her life. She hated my advice, but she read me a letter of Gail’s which said, “I know it’s hard to take advice from someone you remember as a baby, but Stephanie sounds sensible.” While my mother didn’t hang on my every word, we had an easier time discussing unpleasant topics.

In later years, Mom reported that she heard less from Gail. Then one Christmas she got a card from Gail’s husband. The card had some cheery family scene on it, but inside Gail’s husband had written “Bonnie, I am sorry to tell you that Gail has Alzheimer’s Disease and never wants to do anything anymore.”

“Now I guess I’ll never get to meet her,” my mother said.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson


  1. Your ending was very touching. tjs

  2. What a lovely (though heartbreaking) story.

  3. Very touching. I had a pen pal once, many years ago. I think about her some days and wonder what she was really like. This was a charming story!

  4. Thank you all! If I seem to be commenting less, it's because it appears that the latest security feature my husband put on our computer doesn't allow me to comment from my home computer. I can comment from my work computer but of course at work, I'm working