The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

A Mother’s Days

Amidst her always-hectic schedule, my mom, Joan McClure (1935 – 1984), remained a devoted letter writer, and fortunately for me, she saved her carbon copies. Here, writing (to a college friend) from our home in Evanston, next to Chicago, Joan describes her struggle to balance her roles as a mother, part-time teacher, and grad student, at the time studying for her M.A. in linguistics at Northeastern Illinois University. The primary people she refers to are my dad, Bob (also born 1935), my sister, Jill, who had just turned six, and me, then two and a half.

–T. Hamm

May 30, 1969
Dear Aliceann,

Joan with Jill and Ted, 1969.
Joan with Jill and Ted, 1969.

Happy Holiday. Ted’s spending the morning at Frank’s1 house, and always when he’s gone, I go off in all directions at once, trying to get everything accomplished. His room cleaned, telephone calls made (without interruptions), ironing. Summertime always means a stack of ironing—mostly Jill’s stuff. If I bought her clothes, I’d buy perma-press, but I don’t buy her a thing. She wears hand-me-downs from the neighbors, and Maria2 makes her things. The price of it all is that I must iron (something for school every day). I shouldn’t complain—the cleaning lady does all the dampened stuff and Mrs. Kopfstein irons when she babysits, but I’ll complain anyway.

I’ve decided to pass the rest of this precious time with you. Ted is a cheerful child, but he does keep me busy practically every minute. Endless chatter…and he always wants a full reply. Fortunately, we have Bob to depend on…although sometimes I wonder: When one of the kids is outside and yells for us, he goes so fast he sometimes falls—actually falls. I always assume that it’s something minor that they want and finish whatever I’m doing. Fortunately, I’ve always been right. But I guess we really don’t know how we’ll react to crises until they occur, do we?

My comprehensive was two weeks ago, and I passed. The month preceding was traumatic—trying to find four hours a day to study. Many days I didn’t succeed, but the last two weeks all went well, and the final week, I had Mrs. Cerney (the lady who stays when we go away overnight) come every afternoon and stay until dinner was over. (That was this year’s vacation.) The night before the exam was our first hot night of the year, so I slept a total of about three hours—up to turn fans on and off, carry water to Ted, turn off Bob’s alarm (the last thing I said to him was, “Don’t forget to turn off your alarm”), listen to Jill up at 5:30 jangling some new bracelets she had gotten for her birthday, and finally at 6 a.m. when I was dozing off in the basement, I heard the buzz-buzz-buzz of Maria’s spray-iron; she had taken her husband to work at 5:30 and come home to iron. I could hardly wait to awaken Bob to tell him of my night’s adventures. When he noticed a little water in the tub, he asked, “Did you consider drowning yourself at 4 a.m.?”

Off to the test—22 essays to write in three and a half hours (isn’t that absurd?), with no breaks. After that, a mad dash home—no time for lunch. I had to set the table for Jill’s birthday celebration. We had had tickets to a children’s play since last fall, and my comp had to come up on the same day. So Bob was off to the play with the girls, and Frank was here with Ted. I sent Frank off to the neighbor’s to pick up Jill’s new bike so that I could have it waiting for her when she got back from the play. (I had given her a choice of a big party or a new bike. Luckily, she chose the bike. Her friends have been having big parties for 15 or 20 kids, and I think that all those presents, junky though they are, make the kids materialistic. I’ve even had her decline the last three invitations. She’s getting into the spirit of it—“Mom, all the kids think I’m so busy, because I always have other plans.”) Jill and her three friends returned from the play for cake and ice cream. They were here for half an hour and there were three accidents: Someone stepped on someone else’s hand, someone sat on a piece of cake, punch spilled. I CAN’T STAND IT! That evening—for relaxation—I had six guests for dinner. They stayed until 2:00 a.m. By 3:30 we cleaned up and were in bed. Back up at 7:30. It was a memorable day.

You should see Jill. You wouldn’t recognize her. She has curly hair now—guess who has to set it? She wants it to grow, so I set it to keep it out of her eyes. I can’t wait until it gets long enough to pull back. And she’s wearing pink bells and a flowered top that Maria made for her. She’s reading a book about Helen Keller. She has been doing so well that I decided it was time she stopped reading the drivel that comes in those early readers, and I found a simple book about Keller at the library. When she’s not reading or brushing her hair, she’s riding her new 20” bike—she’s so proud of herself. The bike is a convertible, so Ted will be able to have it, too, although he can’t even ride a tricycle yet. He propels it by dragging his feet on the ground. All his shoes have holes in the toes. Now we have to get ready to go pick up a friend of Jill’s who is coming for the afternoon. The mother also has a 2-year-old and two 3-year-olds, so I volunteered to go get Lynne. Jill spent last weekend at Lynne’s house—her first weekend away. She began packing her suitcase at 7 a.m. and was still at it at 11. I’ll continue this later, though I’ll have to hide it, because now that Jill reads, I can’t leave things lying around. I’ve lectured her on it and so far she’s been pretty good, but I don’t trust her completely yet. I know I read everything I could ever find around the house. Privacy is a thing of the past.

Jill didn’t read the letter, but Bob did.

Graduation day, May 1970.
Graduation day, May 1970.

It’s the next day, and Ted’s out with Frank again. I spent the rest of the “holiday” trying to keep the kids busy so that Bob could work. It’s his last weekend of study,3 and we’re all looking forward to the summer off. For the whole year, we’ve been alternating weekends so that one of us could study and the strain on all of us is beginning to tell. After Bob’s term ends this week, we’ll just have French exams to study for—his is in mid-July, mine in early August. But that isn’t as overwhelming as seminar papers and comprehensives. Then he’ll have just another year of full-time work4 and study. There’s a fellow down the block who’s in Bob’s classes. He’s also teaching four courses. The poor guy doesn’t know what day it is. He’s half an hour late for everything and a couple of weeks ago lost complete track of his schedule and wound up having to do two seminar papers in one weekend. He’s an interesting guy—in his mid-forties and always wanted to teach, so a few years ago, he just said the hell with it all, left his printing job, and enrolled in grad school…even though he has two daughters in college. Or maybe his printing job left him. He was working in his uncle’s shop and tried to unionize it. The rift in the family is wide.

I’m already missing my coursework. I agree with you that housework is a total bore, and the only thing that has kept me going these past few years is my studies. Many of my friends are in analysis; I’m in linguistics. Currently I’m looking into taking a course in dialectology that’s being offered at the U of I in the fall. It’s being taught by a visiting professor who’s well known in the field, and it might be helpful to me in my thesis.5 Gwendolyn Brooks taught a class in black poetry at Northeastern this past term and the sessions were really heated. One of my neighbors enrolled for relaxation and came home a wreck.

What do you hear from your mother? My mother fell down the cellar steps and is in a back brace. Craig6 wrote at the end of a letter, “Mother was going to add a few lines, but unfortunately, as I was writing this letter, she fell down the cellar steps. I thought it was dishes falling. We went to see how she was and found her unconscious. We think she will be all right. Love, Craig.” Bob expected the next line to be, “After we buried her.…” Craig is coming for the summer to be our “summer boy.” This will give me a few hours to study French and do some reading for my thesis. And I’ll be teaching a few Americanization7 classes. Jill will be going to summer school in the mornings (she’s enrolled for post-kindergarten), and Ted started nursery school about a month ago and will continue through the summer. He loves it. It’s the same school that Jill went to. He goes from 9-11:40 and comes home full of tales about his best friends, Gus Govas and Bennett Rosenberg. I think that Craig will be able to handle the lunch hour, and I’ll come home in early afternoon. I find it very hard to be away from home in the summer, even with an adult sitter around, because it’s too hard to keep track of Jill in the neighborhood, and she’s too old to be told to stay in the yard. And she’s always having an accident. She’s very daring—swinging from trees, etc. I don’t know where she gets that trait. Ted’s a conservative.

I ramble on and on, because I really don’t enjoy talking to my neighbors. They look at me askance because I don’t build my life around trips to the grocery store. Fortunately, Maria is easy to get along with, even though she does build her life around trips to the grocery store and Sears. She’s the ideal personality for a housewife—loves to sew and shop. I envy her in a way. It makes me wonder how to bring up a daughter. Jill’s so neat that when she has kids it will drive her crazy as it does me. There can be popcorn boxes on the floor and it doesn’t bother Maria—though she’s not dirty. One day this week it was 90 degrees and Maria got up at 3:30 a.m. and cleaned, and did three loads of wash and some ironing. By the time the kids got up, she was ready to go shopping. First she gave them baths and washed their hair. Then they went shopping all morning. After lunch she took an hour’s nap, which restored her for the evening’s activity: painting one wall in the playroom, cleaning the paneling, cooking a big meal for her husband (he’s a slob who expects a roast on the table when he comes home to change clothes and go off to play softball with the boys), putting the sprinkler out and watching her kids and mine because I had to teach that evening, and after the kids were in bed, washing the entire living room wall. You can imagine how much she does on a cool day. She never seems to lose her enthusiasm for it all—I’m fascinated. She’s always making new outfits for herself and the kids for every occasion—yes, even Memorial Day. Bob commented that Maria’s life is a series of unrelated goings overboard.

How was your coffee? I went to a ladies luncheon recently where the topic of conversation actually turned to how the cost of sterling has gone up. I do enjoy my Americanization classes but they don’t offer much mental stimulation. The people, though, are so grateful for the little help they get. One of my Greek fellows, who owns a restaurant with his brothers, invited me to the restaurant on a recent Wednesday evening. He brought me a huge sundae, my first in years, which I finished with some difficulty. I was preparing to make my getaway, when he mentioned that it was time to go upstairs. The table was set for 20, and we had eight or nine different dishes. I tried to leave at 12, but Nick’s brother got out his lyre and we did Greek dances. Bob wondered what became of me. Jill received necklaces for her birthday from Baghdad and Bombay, given to her by two of my students. And a sweet little old Polish lady who was impressed by the postcards that we got from Austria and the Canary Islands (where a young German girl had gone for her wedding and honeymoon, respectively) sent me a postcard from her vacation—in Petoskey, Michigan. The scenic view on the front was of the Petoskey filling station. I’m going to have another party for my students this summer. How I wish you could come.

We had a thundershower, so our heat wave has broken temporarily. Last weekend we had the heat on and this weekend we could use the air conditioning, though Bob does everything to discourage it. He says it bothers his sinuses, but I think it’s the electric bill that bothers his sinuses. I’ve made up my mind that I’m not going to fight it this summer. But it makes me furious that he never complains about the heat. He’s a true Spartan, whereas I am more in the Athenian tradition.

I think I’ll go out in the yard and read. I’m reading The Naked Ape, and I couldn’t agree with it more heartily. I’m trying to acquire a little tan to complement the new wardrobe I’ve gathered in the past year. As Bob so kindly put it, “You finally got tired of being a frump.” I do like the new short clothes, bells, etc., do you? But I still haven’t acquired a taste for clumpy shoes. Did you see Rachel, Rachel? We saw it last weekend, and my favorite line was when, after Rachel had an operation and was coming out of the anesthetic, the doctor said, “You’re out of danger.” She replied, “How can I be out of danger if I’m not dead?” I know you used to like Joanne Woodward.

I want to get out while the sun still is. Write very soon. I’ll write again in a few days months.

Love to all,



  1. A family friend and babysitter.
  2. A neighbor in the adjoining town-house.
  3. Ph.D. coursework in American history at Univ. of Illinois-Chicago.e
  4. As a research librarian at World Book Encyclopedia.
  5. On the dialect of Pennsylvania-Germans.
  6. Her much-younger brother, writing from Harrisburg, PA.
  7. Prep classes for citizenship exam.


Joan McClure


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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