- What inspired you to write this book?
My mother did. Just before she died, I lifted a book from a chair at her bedside, and a small handwritten poem fluttered to the floor. It contained precisely 25 words:
Every time I pass the church
I stop and make a visit
So when I'm carried in feet first
God won't say, "Who is it?"
This contest entry perfectly describes my mother's sense of humor, her skill with words, and her approach to life. When she died, I knew I had to write her story. Luckily, Mom made it easy for me to do. She left a paper trail of her "contesting" years. I found dressers full of 50-year-old entry blanks, her workbooks, and letters announcing her prizes from contest sponsors as diverse as Bazooka bubble gum (a fishing rod and reel), the Ed Sullivan Show (a G.E. television), the Bob Hope radio show (a Bulova watch), and Western Auto Supply ($5,000, a new bike, a washer and dryer). That's when I knew that I had the goods to write a book. Mom had supplied the inspiration long before.
- How many contests did your mother win? Do any of the prizes exist today?
She had an astounding batting average, winning a prize in one out of four contests she entered. I have confirmation letters showing that Mom won over 200 contests, but she won a lot more, and her prizes are almost innumerable, ranging from a Triumph TR3 sports car, a Ford Mustang, trips to Europe, multiple televisions, radios, and refrigerators to gold watches, scores of appliances, toasters, coffee makers, blenders, wall clocks, shavers, and thousands of dollars in cash. We used up or wore out most of those prizes, but I still have four of the watches.
- Why was your mother so good at winning contests? Was she just lucky?
"Luck has nothing to do with it," my mother used to say. She loved playing with words, perhaps because, at 18, she had worked as a typesetter on her hometown newspaper, the Sherwood Chronicle. She used a monotype stick (long before linotype machines) and set every sentence of that paper, letter by letter, by hand. (I think she was the last of the monostick typesetters in America, but that's another story.)
She did the same thing with her contest entries casting and recasting words until they said what she wanted them to say. She composed at the ironing board all day, often falling asleep over her notebooks at night. She had a knack for writing short, witty pieces, and over the years she honed that knack into a small but lucrative profession.
- Of all the prizes and contests your mother won during your childhood, which was the most exciting?
The most memorable prize was the Dr Pepper win, when Mom single-handedly won enough money to keep the bank from foreclosing on our house. But Mom always thought that even the smallest prize was memorable and exciting. She never knew whether an unopened envelope might hold a dollar (she won many of these) or a trip for 2 to Switzerland (she won one of these). In that way, every prize was equally thrilling.
- What prize do you think your mother was most proud of?
The three grand prizes are hard to ignore, each one coming in the nick of time to save the family from eviction, hunger, or foreclosure, but I think that Mom was personally most proud of her Poet Laureate awards from the Toledo Blade. One year, the editors removed authors' names from 1500 submissions, and the judges picked the 12 best of these. After replacing the authors' names on the winning poems, the judges found that 10 of the 12 had Mom's name on them.
- Your mom has been compared to Erma Bombeck do you think she might have had a career as a writer?
Yes, I certainly do. She told us that as a young woman, she dreamed of writing her own newspaper column or working for a magazine in New York. Mom had always loved writing (short stories, poetry; she wrote her own small-town newspaper column when she was 20). The irony is that she did create a writing career for herself in contesting. With ten kids, the contest format suited her needs perfectly she could write a quick 25-words-or-less entry, put a stamp on the envelope, and feel intellectually satisfied, not to mention make a few dollars in the process.
- Although your mom's experience was unique, do you think it relates to other mothers' experience?
I think all moms try to figure out how to give their children the best shot at life. This book is really one woman's story of how she did that. It's unique to my mother, but it's also universal. Every mother has her own way.
- Do you see your mother's experience as relevant today?
Oh yes. The big trend these days is the work-at-home mom the mother who builds her career at home through telecommunications while she's raising a family. My mother did exactly that, except that she didn't have a computer.
- What would your mother have thought of the TV hit "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire"?
It probably would have been her favorite show. She not only would have watched it, she would have taped it to study the host, the questions, and the contestants. Then she would have done everything possible to be a contestant herself, if only to meet Regis Philbin in person, and she would have convinced her ten kids to do the same.
- Are contests requiring language skills making a comeback?
I almost hate to say this out loud for fear of jinxing a new trend, but I think so. Mainly on the Internet, where word skills are a given. Last spring, I noticed an NBA Finals-related haiku contest, of all things, judged by Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers. If basketball fans can write haiku, the world is in pretty good shape.
- Do you enter contests yourself?
Yes, but only the kind my mother used to enter. Sweepstakes require only enough luck to get your name pulled out of a hat, so I ignore those. There aren't that many contests of skill anymore, but when I find one, I enter it, including the above-named haiku contest (I didn't win).
- Which of your mother's jingles or poems is your favorite?
It's hard to choose, considering how many she wrote, but this one always makes me smile:
Behold the hippopotamus
bestowing hippo kisses
Upon a hippopotamiss
Who's not his hippomissus.
But he's no hippocrit, is he,
Because the hippopotamiss
Is his little hipposister.
- Did you learn anything surprising about your family or yourself in the course of writing the book?
The biggest surprise was learning that my mother was even better at writing entries than I thought. For her, double entendres (highly rewarded by contest judges) were commonplace. She could squeeze a triple entendre into two words, as in this last line of a Curtiss candy bar jingle:
Where beau ties I'd renovate.
In that entry, beau ties refers to bow ties, boyfriend connections, and beauties.
- Was there anything you hesitated to reveal about your family?
At first, I had doubts about describing Dad's drinking and abusive behavior. In the end, I told the truth about him despite a family's natural reaction to keep certain things secret. Glossing over the threat he represented to all of us would have presented an inaccurate picture of life at 801 Washington, weakening the power of the real story. And I wanted to show that humor did exist even in the worst moments, as when a big bowl of Jell-O flips into the air during a fight, and all we can think of is Mom's latest contest entry:
For picnic or party, Jell-O's a boon
Made by nine, all "set" by noon
With taste and shimmer-shake appeal,
Jell-O jollies any meal.
- What was the most important lesson your mother taught you and your siblings?
That the greatest poverty is poverty of the mind. That money doesn't necessarily buy a rich life. She told us that having a winning spirit is both essential to winning and more important than winning. A winning attitude will outlast any prize you win, no matter how valuable.
- Your mother died in 1998, at the age of 85. What would she think about being the subject of this book?
I think my mother secretly believed in the timelessness of her poems and jingles even the 25-words-or-less statements. There's a spirit as well as a talent that many people found memorable in Mom, which is probably why she left all her contesting records behind. I think she would see this book as a testament to that hidden spark inside us all that spirit we give to our kids that helps them overcome adversity. In that way, Mom might see this book as her biggest win yet.