This is yet another post written for ShortbreadStories.
My mother spent over a quarter of a century as an elementary school science teacher. She had the respect of every child, and when a kid’s tooth became loose it became customary to ask her to yank it out, which she always did, quickly and without pain. She was above the teacher’s lounge gossip but still had the ear of the entire faculty. Sensible in dress and personality, she was puritanical in many ways, yet despite her subtle floral prints and flat-soled Keds, she had a secret love for the creative and the cultural. She was an avid reader, especially of horror and detective fiction, and devoured daily papers from cover to cover. I have fond memories of her sitting at the kitchen table in the sunlight with the broadsheets spread out, or in her living room chair with a rumpled and tattered novel from the book exchange. On Sundays after church, she and I would head downtown to see a children’s play, visit the natural history museum, or attend the local ballet. Since I was the youngest by twelve years, my life resembled that of an only child, and Sundays were days just for my mother and me.
During one of these Sunday afternoon jaunts, my mother told me a story from her childhood. When she was little, she loved to write as much as she loved to read. She wrote short stories, mostly mysteries about ghosts. Maybe she told me this because even at that very young age, I too was writing stories, mostly about ghosts. Maybe she saw something of herself in me.
I told her that she should send the stories to a magazine. Even though I was little, my parents had already instilled the importance of setting goals. Her response disappointed me: when she was a child, perhaps almost a teenager, she did submit a story to a magazine, but it had been rejected. She never submitted her writing again. That single rejection letter stopped her writing career before it ever began.
I was disappointed not because she had been rejected, but because she did not try again. The standard in my house was not to give up. I didn’t then, and I still don’t today, understand why she gave up. I have often thought about the life she turned away by not soldiering on. If she had continued to write and to submit work, would she have been a successful writer? Would she have met my father and become the very sensible mother I came to know and love? Would she have gone on teach? Would I have even been born? I have made many excuses for her lack of publishing commitment. It was the 1940s, and with both a brother and father lost during the war, perhaps the rejection letter was more than her young heart could take. Perhaps it was the pressures of being a girl in the American South, a place and time that did not allow little girls to aspire to anything beyond the domestic.
On 17 August 2002 my mother died, and her life as a teacher was honoured by twenty-five years of students and teachers marking her praise. When we were going through her things, I found a little pink piece of paper. It was a rejection slip for a fiction magazine, dated 1947. It was the standard ‘Thank you for your story, but…’ She’d saved that letter for over half a century. Even though she had become successful in her teaching profession, that little piece of paper evidently meant something to her. Perhaps that rejection letter was not a rejection, but a notice from another world, a world of publishing. She was happy with receiving a response, even if that response is ‘no’. One of my mother’s favourite phrases was ‘God answers all prayers, but sometimes that answer is “no”.’ It’s funny to think that publishers and God may have this in common.
Her pink letter has moulded me, allowing me to cope with lost relationships, living abroad, and my own life as a writer. The best lessons learned are those you learn from others, and I have learned to not hold on to rejection for fifty-five years. All of my rejection slips now go straight in the bin.