While looking through the nonfiction section at the library recently, I saw in the biography section: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. I was intrigued – not just because I didn’t know the movie was based on a biography, but also because I hadn’t heard the subtitle before. What do you mean “25 Words or Less?,” the writer in me wondered (I was less interested in the 10 kids part). I grabbed the book and entered the world of 1950’s and 60’s midwestern America. The world of the “contest era.” The world of the poor, put-upon, persistant Ryan family.
Evelyn Ryan always had a knack for writing, and enjoyed a short career writing the op-ed column at her step-grandmother’s newspaper when she was a young woman. But then came marriage – to a hard-drinking, hard-working Irish Catholic man named Kelly – and one by one, ten active children. A career in journalism was out of the question, but Evelyn kept her writer’s fire alive by filling mountainous piles of notebooks with quick poems and anecdotes, many of which she sold to area newspapers. She also spent countless hours at the ironing board, combining her everyday household chore with the inspiration to write catchy jingles for major contests. For Lucky Strike cigarettes:
Send me laundry, send me dough
Send me Luckies to send my beau
I’m true to him, he’s true to me
And we’re true to Luckies, eternally.
She won $25 for that entry, money crucial to the care of such a large family, and with a father that typically drank the better part of his weekly paychecks.
Terry Ryan, one of Evelyn and Kelly’s daughters and the author of this biography, includes many of the little jingles that won her mother some big and not-so-big prizes. She tells of a housefull of won appliances, the trip to New York for her mother and brother after a particularly large win, the Christmas her mother bestowed the kids with won presents she had been stashing in her closet all year long. Terry writes of some close calls – medically, financially, domestically. Her writing is so totally engaging that you laugh and cry and feel every little emotion just like you would if you were just one more child in that brood of Ryan kids. You want to cheer when they cheer for another prize win, you want to yell and scream when their father loses his judgement to the beer (again), you feel the anxiety of waiting every day for the postman – Pokey – as they wait to hear from the bank (on the foreclosure) or the brand (for the contest win that just might save the day).
It’s not all serious, though. There are many moments of clear gaiety. Like when they learn their cat can open doors (by turning the KNOB!). Or when that same cat adopts an orphaned chick as a member of her newest litter. The frequency with which Evelyn forgets she has hidden food in the dryer (and fuses cake donuts, bananas, you name it, into the fibers of the clothes!). Or Evelyn’s method for mending her girdle, keeping the oven door on, fixing the melted gears in the family car. I laughed loud and long at the story of their garbage disposal – a tempermental beast that only worked on occasion. They kept it switched “on,” and whenever they heard the trap start to churn – day or night, tragedy or no – all the kids would clamor into the kitchen and start feeding the piles of trash into the sink. There are also moments of pride, like when two of the Ryan boys are selected to play minor league baseball, or when some of the other kids get scholarships for school.
Almost all of Evelyn’s writing came from the ready-made material all around her – her family. As a result, many of her poems portray the wonders and worries of family life, and I really identified with them. These types of poems often earned her anywhere from $1-$25, but it was the corporate contests that really kept this family afloat. The whole affair was a business to Evelyn, as it was to many (many!) people in those days.
I found this book to be funny, inspiring, sometimes sad, but altogether uplifting. Terry dedicated the book to her late mother, but also “the little bit of Evelyn in all of us”. I’d like to think there IS a little bit of Evelyn Ryan in me. I’d like to think that I could have the same passion for my family and for writing that she lived every day. I’d like to think that I have the wits about me to survive just about anything. I’d also like to think that I have some of the faith she showed in getting through some very rough times.
*Disclosure: Amazon affiliate link included.