December, a month of holidays, is often the time when our financial worries–especially this year–tend to loom large, our hope for magical solutions soar and our focus on those we love intensifies. Our Daily Lives presents an excerpt from “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio:How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less” a laughing-out-loud tale of growing up in a household with siblings galore, an underemployed and overimbibing father and a lucky, ingenious mother as told by totally deadpan cartoonist Terry Ryan.
Ours was one of the poorest families in Defiance. Mom was far too busy with the family and housework to take on an outside job, and Dad’s take-home pay from Serrick’s Screw Machine Shop-where he made nuts, bolts, screws, screwdrivers, pliers, hammer, and an occasional pair of tweezers for home use-was about $90 a week, barely enough to pay for food and rent. His nightly consumption-a fifth of Kessler’s whiskey and a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer-came to $30 a week, sapping his paycheck of any real buying power.
So Mom, like a surprisingly large number of housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, turned to contesting for a living. Of course, thousands of contestants competing for a small pool of prizes made for long odds. But Mom won a great deal of the time, and any prize she received usually filled a pressing household need.
Mom hit a dry spell starting late in the summer of 1953, but that, it turned out, was the least of her worries. The tiny two-bedroom house we had rented for six years, we learned, would soon be the home of someone else. Granted, the house was far too small and cramped for a family of eleven. We had no bathtub and only two small bedrooms. Mom and Dad had one; the kids slept in the other-nine of us in two double beds and three single cots.
As children we hardly noticed the crowded conditions. What kid wouldn’t like waking up in a room with eight other boys and girls? It was life as we knew it, and it was grand. But now it seemed our life on Latty Street was over. The landlord told Mom that he wanted the house for his daughter, who was getting married in a few months. In short, we were being evicted.
Then Dick was hit by a car while delivering newspapers on his bicycle. Although he came through the accident with only a broken arm, the bike was destroyed. Without a bike, Dick lost his newspaper route to another boy who had a functioning bicycle. A few weeks later on a visit to the hardware store, Mom noticed an ad for a bicycle contest sponsored by Western Auto: “Kids! Complete this sentence in 25 words or less (Mom and Dad’s help is encouraged): I like the all-new ‘X-53 Super’ Western Flyer Bicycle because….”
Mom took home an entry blank, determined for the first time to win a contest for a specific need. Her goal was to win Dick one of the 101 new bikes that would be awarded to the grand prize winner and the hundred runner-ups. The entry she finally submitted seemed, to her kids, another of the slack-jawed variety, but we didn’t say this out loud. There would be other contests, we thought, other bicycles:
I like the all-new “X-53 Super” Western Flyer Bicycle because brand new ideas about safety, service, sleekness, combined with Western Flyer’s old reliable construction make “X-53 Super” a stand-out in ANY bike rack!
Nothing had come of the Western Flyer entry Mom had sent in during her dry spell, and we could tell she was becoming increasingly worried about that and our eviction notice by the time the three men in business suits pulled up in their gleaming Pontiac.
Assuming the men were lost, Mom opened the screen door prepared to direct them elsewhere. She wiped her hands on her apron and smiled.
“Mrs. Ryan?” the blue-eyed man inquired. She seemed intrigued that he knew her name. “Yes?” “Is your son Dick here?” “Yes,” she said, grabbing Dick’s shoulders from behind, “this is Dick. What’s this about?” The three of them erupted in a chorus. “Congratulations, Dick! You’ve just won five thousand dollars!”
Out of sixty-five thousand entries in the companies national bike contest, Dick’s had won the grand prize, which included $5,000 (about $35,000 today), a new washer and dryer, and a brand-new Western Flyer bicycle.
Mom, who realized instantly that the money was enough to solve our housing problem, began to weep with relief, which in turn made all the rest of us cry.
Mom and Dad used the down payment on a sixty-year old, two-story, four-bedroom house near the railroad tracks on Washington Avenue.
Terry Ryan, the sixth of Evelyn Ryan’s ten children, is the writing half of T.O. Sylvester, a long-running cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle. The author of two books of poetry, she lives in San Francisco, California.
From THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE: HOW MY MOTHER RAISED 10 KIDS ON 25 WORDS OR LESS by Terry Ryan. Â©2001 by Terry Ryan. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.
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