Be she ever so humble, there's no one like Mom
While attempting to write a newspaper bio on her mother, writer Tammy Swift discovers her mom is an endangered species — an anti-narcissist who is fine with working backstage, thank you.
FARGO — I’ve had some tough editors in my day.
The one who made me rewrite a story 11 times. Or the guy who yelled all the time.
But until this weekend, all of those word-wranglers have paled in comparison to the Greatest Ben Bradlee of them all.
During an extended Memorial Day weekend, my sister Bertha gave me an assignment.
Our mom had been inducted into our hometown’s “hall of fame,” and we needed to submit her bio to the local newspaper.
This seemed easy enough. I've literally known her all my life.
Unlike my dad, she is not a storyteller. But every once in a while, she used to share fascinating glimpses into some incident of her early life.
How she contracted rheumatic fever at age 16, and spent weeks convalescing with bed rest and milk shakes. How she first disliked moving to our hometown in high school, because all of her best friends were still back home. How, as a shy teen, she labored backstage during high school plays, while her gregarious best friend, Shirley, took starring roles.
How she and Shirley spent a summer in Spearfish, S.D., to attend Black Hills Teachers' College and act as extras in the Black Hills Passion Play. They had to scrape together spare coins to buy fuel for their old car, which they thought had a broken gas gauge. It wasn’t until they finally had saved enough money to fill the car that they realized the gas gauge worked — they just had never put enough fuel in the tank for the needle to move off “empty.”
Of course, I couldn’t go into that level of detail for mom’s biography. So I sat down and tried to summarize the high points of her life.
I wrote how she was primarily a farm wife until the early 1970s, when she took my sister Mabel to the home of a neighboring farm wife/art teacher. Mom was so fascinated by the lessons that the teacher told her she should take lessons too.
By 1978, Mom had opened an art studio and was teaching art herself. She taught art around the state and in other states as well. She won many awards and her work was selected to hang in the North Dakota Governor’s Mansion numerous times.
Amid much family skepticism, she opened a bed-and-breakfast in the '90s. To our surprise, it thrived. Over the years she entertained thousands of guests, from motorists caught in surprise snowstorms and international travelers to one disheveled fellow who arrived with nothing but a battered box, which he refused to let out of his sight.
Macular degeneration and pancreatic cancer finally caused Mom to retire her paintbrushes and (temporarily) hang up her innkeeper’s keys. Now, at 85, she is cancer-free and continues to accept guests as her health allows.
I tried to capture all this in a concise and objective way. When done, I read it aloud to Mom.
She paused before speaking, then said: “It’s a really nice job but I think it’s too long.”
What? I had been hearing this from editors for years. But Mom’s story was under 500 words.
I dutifully returned and chopped out some details. Even then, Mom thought it was "War and Peace."
“You don’t need to mention I was president of the Lioness Club,” she said. “I don’t even remember that. Or the bit about how I got started painting. No one will care about that.”
I argued that people might find it fascinating.
“I doubt it,” she said. “I really don’t think the paper wants something like that. Just make it two or three paragraphs, like they’ve done in previous years.”
I argued that weekly newspapers are usually hungry for any local content they don’t have to produce themselves. Mom’s article might mean the editor didn’t have to run the winners of the kindergarten coloring contest five columns wide.
“I don’t know,” Mom said, shaking her head. “If an article is too long, I think they’ll just find it boring and stop reading it. That’s what I do.”
It was then I realized Mom’s innate modesty was popping up. The shy teen who used to prefer working backstage during school plays was feeling exposed. She didn’t want to look like she was trying to brag.
Finally, we settled on something shorter, but which captured some highlights of a rich, full life.
Mom, it turns out, is an endangered species these days: An anti-narcissist with no interest in leveraging her brand.
Although her drive for excellence and talents sometimes made her stand out, she wasn't always comfortable with that.
Be she ever so humble, there's no one like Mom.