Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The First IM

On Monday morning, September 28, 1964, the day after my parents dropped me off at the University of Cincinnati for freshman orientation, my mother IM'ed me: 

That was the first of more than 30 years of little “Tweets” from the nest, frequently on 4¢ postcards.  “Dad got you some Picasso posters for your wall.  Will keep them here ‘til you come home. Sears came yesterday to look at the refrig door and needs a new handle.”

Financial matters were a frequent topic. “If your books cost more than you think, let us know.” “Your state tax refund check of $21.55 came, so I took the liberty of depositing it in your saving account.”  “Your bank statement arrived but will hold it till you come home.” “Dad says you are due a 48¢ tax refund but I’ll combine it with whatever else we owe you.” “Rather than send you the coins, I enclose some stamps.”  “Please don’t hesitate to call collect because we don’t want to miss hearing from you just because you’re low.” “Take this $2 for your shampoo.” “Please inform Dad well in advance when your next Quarter payment is due.”

She was my agent on my recurring search for a summer job. “Mrs. P. will mail the application to me and I’ll send it right away.” “Ida Lee is quitting Richard’s for the summer. Shall I inquire for you? $1.25 per hour.” “Just wanted to let you know Alma called and gave me the name of the woman in her personnel office for you to call.”

My mother, like many women of her generation, did not work regularly outside our home once she was married.  When my brother and I went to college, she worked part-time.  While I was much more of a feminist than most of my friends, I did not question my mother’s way of life.  I thought of it as her “choice,” and I am still mostly convinced that it was the choice my father preferred too.  She had one year at Northwestern, but dropped out because of the Depression. 

When my father returned from the Pacific, they married and dad began a nearly 30-year career as a lawyer with the Veterans Administration, work that filled him with great pride as he helped his fellow soldiers find their way through the GI Bill for education and medical benefits.

Her source of pride was being encouraging and helpful to everyone. She was the willing receiver of all kinds of communication, and the smiling and contented fountain of comfort and tenderness. She took a sincere interest in everyone’s achievements. She was as attentive to my brother’s needs as she had been to mine when I was still home. Pick up kids? Call Neal’s mom! Even after we both were no longer living at home, she was the one they all depended upon. She looked after her mother, her younger sister, and my father's father, bringing them frequently to our house from Chicago for days at a time.  She tweeted it all.

She never told people what to do, but her wisdom was accepted and appreciated widely.  She got at least one or two calls a week from my high school friends, now away at college too, eager to speak to the mother who always had time to listen. “Sorry to hear M.’s using such poor judgment but like I said, people will do what they want and live as they like, whether or not you worry about them.” “S. brought the baby by after her 3-month check-up. Baby’s fine, but S. needs a kidney test.”  She baked batches and batches of cookies that she sent to my friends and cousins.

She was always occupied, not watching television or drinking coffee with friends. "Had a busy time at the penny end of the candy counter yesterday.” “This coming Monday is sisterhood opening dinner [turkey, $1.99], so I’m going, to collect the money.  Mrs. S. said we wouldn’t have to give any reports.”

“F and R are coming Thurs. and hope they will stay for dinner this time.  I will make a chocolate malted cake and freeze a piece for you.”

“Saw S.C. at airport and he asked about you . . . He’s still going to school and feels the hot breath of the draft.”

She did occasionally have lunch with friends.  She weeded.  She grew tomatoes and gave them away.  She didn’t like housework and moaned about dustballs, but whenever I went home, they were still there. “Don’t let it get around that your mother scrubs a floor without a mop, or your marital prospects will be nil.”

I wrote back, not so frequently, also postcards:  “This Saturday is Homecoming.  Guess I’ll go to the Library so I don’t hear the sounds of the game.  The concert last night was great, especially Belafonte’s now famous rendition of ‘Hava Nagila.’”

She was our Internet Service Provider, the center of a vast network, our Google.  She was, I realize, the reason that staying in touch with my friends and being a connector came to mean so much to me.  I saved most of her letters and postcards, and she saved mine.  Who knows why?  My historian friends have convinced me that these three decades of Tweets offer a rare written record of a few moments in 20th century history, so I will be donating them to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. They are a precious source of reflection and life review to me, but they also provide a glimpse of everyday lives.