“The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less” – May Book Club Selection
Growing up as the middle child in a family of ten, Terry watched her mother scrape together milk money by entering the jingle contests of the 1950s and 60s. Evelyn Ryan’s knack for rhyme enabled her to win one out of every four entries. Her husband’s drinking habit used up most of the family budget so when Evelyn discovered that she could win everything from a toaster to a car by writing advertising jingles of 25 words or less, she spent every spare minute filling out entry forms. Every win came in the nick of time, even saving the family from losing their home. Evelyn did it all with a cheerful attitude despite the continual stress of her husband’s drinking.
Terry Ryan had been writing poetry and cartoon punch lines for years when her mother died in 1998. The ten children gathered to sort out her belongings and found that Evelyn had saved all of her notebooks, entry forms, and award letters from her years as a jingle writer. Terry took everything home with her and spent the next several months sorting through the papers, and tapping into her sibling’s memories. The discovery of the papers led Terry on a journey to tell the story of her remarkable mother. In an interview with the (Portland) Oregonian, Terry said:
It was like she was leaving her story behind for me to tell. My brothers and sisters helped me remember what it was like for us and how for my mother there was never a poverty of spirit or of mind.¹
Terry doesn’t shy away from the inevitable difficult situations that occurred when her father came home drunk, but overall the book is lighthearted and inspiring. She writes with humor and depicts her mother as a cheerful woman determined to give her children the best home life possible. She includes many of the jingles that her mother wrote. Evelyn Ryan won a 10-minute shopping spree with this entry in the Seabrook Farms contest:
Wide selections, priced to please her;
Scads of Seabrooks in their freezer,
Warmth that scorns the impersonal trend,
Stamps ”Big Chief” as the housewife’s friend.²
Looking at this book from a family history standpoint, I took away three lessons for anyone interested in writing a family narrative.
1. Value the stuff that makes up a person’s life. I found it fascinating that Evelyn had saved all the papers from her jingle writing years. We need to be careful of our judgments when it comes to “cleaning out the closet” after a loved one passes away. Years down the road, a granddaughter might even use those leavings to learn and write about her grandmother, like I did in “The Scraps of a Well-Behaved Woman’s Life: Florence Creer Kelsey.”
2. Every person’s story deserves to be told. Evelyn Ryan’s descendants now have a view into their grandmother’s life that can’t be equaled. We don’t have to write a full fledged memoir to tell our family stories, but we will be missing wonderful opportunities to make sense of their trials and triumphs if we don’t write anything at all.
3. It’s okay to write the hard things. We may be tempted to gloss over the situations and events that are not so rosy, but Terry Ryan does an admirable job of telling the family’s story the way it was. Learning about my great grandfather’s mental illness and life in a state hospital made me sad, but I found a lot of peace when I wrote “Do You Have a Skeleton in your Family History Closet.”
A good book is a friend for life and “The Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less” is one of my favorites. Here’s to all mothers who are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given! A movie was made of the book, which you can find here.
¹”Terry Ryan, 60: wrote bestseller “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” Los Angeles Times, 21 May 2007; http://articles.latimes.com, accessed 28 April 2016.
²”Fighting Eviction With a Jackpot of Jingles,” The New York Times, 12 April 2001; http://www.nytimes.com, accessed 28 April 2016.