Tom is away for a week, fulfilling one of the dreams on his personal bucket list: fishing in Alaska. Halibut, salmon—he plans to bring home coolers full of it. So I’m on my own for a few days, which means I hang around my folks’ assisted living facility a little more than necessary.
“Tell me a story, Mom,” I said this morning when I went over to visit. Sometimes I sound like I’m around five years old. She looked at me over the top of her glasses. For some reason, they don’t stay up on her 91-year-old nose as well as they used to.
“A story about what?” she asked. I shrugged. I didn’t care. I just wanted to hear a story.
“Maybe about when you were a teacher,” I suggested. My mother taught in a one-room school house, District 111 in Oscar Township, from 1939 to 1941. “Didn’t you tell me a story a l-o-n-g time ago about a student who had trouble passing a test . . .” My voice trailed off because I could see that her memory had been triggered.
“Eugene Johnson,” she said. “That boy’s name was Eugene Johnson. I don’t know whatever happened to him.” She stared out the window a minute, thinking.
“It was the State Boards,” my mother continued. “All the eighth graders had to take the State Boards and we teachers worried and worried about whether our students would pass. Eugene was always absent from school, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to pass his State Boards at the end of the school year.”
“Was he absent because he had to help his father with the farm work,” I asked, “or was he sick?”
“Oh, he had health problems,” my mother said. “I don’t remember what was the matter with him, but he had to stay home a lot. His father was a singer and his mother was an organist. Eugene was an accordion player. My, he could play that accordion! His father was handsome, unusually handsome, and Eugene’s sister Marjory was just as beautiful as her father was handsome.”
“But Eugene had trouble making it to school,” I prompted, trying to get her back to the story. She seemed a little fixated on how handsome Eugene’s father had been.
“He missed so much school that year that I was certain he wouldn’t pass his State Boards,” my mother shook her head. “But when I got the scores back, he had passed. I couldn’t believe it.”
“I suppose Eugene was pretty happy,” I said.
“I don’t remember if Eugene was happy,” my mother laughed, “but everywhere I went that whole summer after school was out, there was Eugene’s handsome father telling everybody what a wonderful teacher I was—how I was one in a million—how I was such a great teacher that Eugene had passed his State Boards.” She shook her head. “I was embarrassed, but he kept telling everyone.”
She sat in her chair for a minute or two. “I still don’t know how Eugene managed to pass his State Boards” she said. “But I do know that I had nothing to do with it. He was just lucky. But that father kept bragging about me. My, he was handsome.”
My mother sat in her chair, thinking.
“We teachers used to really worry about the State Boards. We heard that when Mabel [my father’s oldest sister] was teaching in Carlisle [around 1933], she was living at home. Several mornings in a row, Olga [Mabel’s mother] went upstairs to wake her for school and found her crying into her pillow. ‘Are you pregnant?’ Olga had finally asked. That got Mabel to sit straight up in bed and demand, with her eyes snapping, ‘Mama, what kind of a boyfriend do you think I have??!?’ It turned out that she was crying every morning because she was so worried about her students taking the State Boards.”
We laughed at the mental picture of my very prim and proper aunt Mabel sitting up in bed and scolding her mother. My dad opened his eyes when he heard my mother and me laughing. “Do you remember hearing that story about Mabel?” I asked my dad.
He slowly closed his eyes again. “I don’t remember any more,” he whispered. And he went back to sleep.