By Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber
I remember one of my childhood nuns, Sister Margaret Mary, as very Irish. She pronounced laughter LAHWt-rr. She was mean, crabby, quick to knuckle-up with the ruler, but man, I loved how she said that word. She insisted.
My favorite teacher as a child was Mme. Pearl Phillippe. She would let me visit with her after school, and she would teach me French words and phrases. She made me hand-copy poems into a book and illustrate them. Not a hugger, she would sometimes touch my hair to move it behind my ear. I still love her for all those things.
In second grade, I was moved up for being precocious, and soon learned (for self-preservation reasons) to pretend that I could not read. The third graders didn’t want a baby around, and my old classmates thought, Jersey-style, she thinks who she is. Publicly, I would stumble over the word ocean: privately, never. Happily demoted, I read a lot at recess. My favorite books involved building undersea cities, and Ezra Jack Keats illustrations. I was glad when my parents transferred my brother, sister, and me to public school for seventh grade.
Although I was in junior high school with comedienne Janeane Garofalo (a very nice girl from a respectable home on the hill), I got voted class clown. I remember making Janeane laugh once when, at the lunch table, I wondered aloud who had manhandled my banana. It was good old LAHWt-rr to the rescue over and over for me. I wrote a lot of terrible poetry, which I still have in hand-made books with green felt covers. I still like the drawings my old self did, but not the poetry so much.
Other things I remember from those years were that one of the teachers in my school was a Playboy centerfold. Another teacher played pocket pool regularly in his tighty tweeds. Another teacher dangled a troublemaker outside a second-story window. I had a letter published in the Aerosmith newsletter, Aero Knows. I continued to write. When a kind of famous neighbor died, my town paper, The Madison Eagle, published my poetic tribute to him, and I was asked to read it at his memorial service, but I was too shy. I also remember sentence diagramming fondly.
In high school, I loved the art room. It was quite the hangout, and it seemed we could help ourselves to any supplies. India Ink, Speedball linoleum cutters, paper. I am still friends with Anthony Vitale, art room buddy, who owns a wonderful music school. We saw Queen and the Police in concert with our thrash-metal friend Eddie Trunk. I tell my sons about high school back then, and they can’t believe it.
There was a used bookstore in town, The Chatham Bookseller, and when I was thirteen I read my way through the existentialists, 35-cents a pop. I still have those copies of Huis Clos, Une Saison En Enfer, and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Merci, Mme. Phillippe. I got an award for creative writing, and was the editor of my school’s literary magazine for my junior and senior year. Graduated.
In college, I met Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, and the Transcendentalists. I stayed in touch with just one professor, Bill Doreski (he and I are coincidentally published together this month in Pure Slush FIVE.) I spent most of my creative energy in college DJing at the radio station. It was a wonderful time for music – Talking Heads, Black Flag, New Order, Grandmaster Flash – and I think I still have the Beastie Boys’ “Cookie Puss” on vinyl somewhere. I used to draw editorial cartoons for the school newspaper. I graduated with my degree in English, having written my final paper on King Lear.
Then, kind of like Matt Potter referenced in his essay for this column, I too distanced myself from writing. I managed creative agencies, ran a telemarketing center, traveled the world, won national sales awards, got an MBA. My claim to fame was this 1990s thing called the “authorization check.” I worked for the phone company, and we’d mail these $20 checks to customers who dropped our service for a competitor’s. When people signed and cashed those checks, it authorized a switch back. LOL. I was the audacious 1995 sales champ. But it was picking up a palette again, and standing in front of an easel, that reclaimed my creativity. Soon after, I found love. I met my artist husband, Paul (our first date is recounted in “How to Meet Marc Chagall.”)
My employer offered severance money, so I bought a computer, a printer, and some file cabinets and started freelance writing. The first feature I wrote won First Prize from the SPJ. As I look back, I’ve always had a career that touched upon writing. We have three bright, creative sons. I gave up work for a few years to be home with the babies. I continued freelancing, then helped run Ghost Tours in a nearby town. I’ve interviewed Kissinger. I won awards. That segued to being a public school teacher, where rereading classics brought me full circle to the path from which I’d strayed.
Fifteen years later, I turned 50. For me, this is my imaginary Annie Proulx line. She did not start writing till later in life, but she did start writing after 50. I too am coming to the craft later, and I am not rising from nothing. The stories are pouring out. My first publication was nominated for Best Small Fiction. I’m 45K words into my first novel, and have finally discovered, after fretting about it all these years, that the love of my life, the English language, has waited for me, and blushes for me, and welcomes me with open arms to some kingdom I was sworn existed when I was very small. I am the king of some rainy country, it seems, where stories pour all day and night. I’m home.
Look for Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber’s stories in New South, Tahoma Literary Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Vignette Review, Revolution John, andJellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and her chapbook reviews appear in Change Seven Magazine; she reads fiction for Pithead Chapel. She’s studied with Randall Brown, Kathy Fish, and Nancy Stohlman, and loves her writing squads: #fishtankwriters and #storytalk. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or looking out the kitchen window at her fascinating goats, Snapdragon and Socrates. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com