The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
by Terry Ryan (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
(This column was first published in the October 18, 2000 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
In THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO, Terry Ryan has written a reverent and fitting tribute to her mother who did indeed carry off the remarkable feat of the book's subtitle: HOW MY MOTHER RAISED 10 KIDS ON 25 WORDS OR LESS.
Evelyn Ryan was one of those remarkably creative women who, in the days before women's lib, were hogtied to an extremely difficult situation. With children arriving one after another, with a husband who soon turned from a handsome man much admired by women into a belligerent drunk, with too little money to feed her family, with her minister telling her that this was her appropriate lot, Mrs. Ryan still retained her good humor and did her best.
And her best was very good.
Contests nowadays aren't like those of the mid-20th century. Now they're almost exclusively lotteries. You submit your name in response to a mailing, you pull a coupon off a hamburger wrapper, you scratch the label on a soft drink cup or you collect tokens that come with fast food (one or two of which are exceptionally rare) and, if you're lucky, an Ed McMahon type shows up at your door with photographers and a big check.
But in the good old days there was creativity involved. You had to complete a paragraph -- that's where the "25 words or less" of the subtitle comes from -- or add a line to a jingle. And those were judged for quality.
And Evelyn Ryan had a wonderful knack for this kind of thing. The book stands in testimony to her skill. And anyone who likes the verse of Ogden Nash will enjoy the Nash-like verses she prepared for newspaper submissions. (They won her only a dollar or two apiece from local papers; she should have sent them off to the journals Nash published in.)
Here are three of her little gems:
bestowing hippo kisses
Who's not his hippomissus.
But he's no hippocrit, is he,
Because the hippopotamiss
Is his little hipposister."
"BIRDS OF A FEATHER
To public buildings,
Victims share a symptom,
Everyone who has it
But what served Mrs. Ryan so well was her contest skill. She won a closet full of clothing and toys, just in time for what would have been otherwise barren Christmases. She headed off loss of her home when she won a car that she could resell. And she squeaked through with another major win to meet by days the date the bank was to foreclose. Her husband had taken out a second mortgage to maintain his quart of liquor, six-pack of beer nightly intake.
She didn't just offer a single entry. She forwarded dozens, each of them under a slightly different name or the name of a family member. Here is an example.
The contest required a fourth line to the jingle:
Kleenex is so handy
I use it every day
Costs so little, helps so much
. . . .
And here are a few of Mrs. Ryan's entries:
"Big blows! Sore nose? Passe! -- Mrs. K. J. Ryan
"My come-to-blows mainstay. -- Mrs. Kelly J. Ryan
"Throw it and germs away. -- Mrs. Evelyn Ryan
"Does lots in tot's sickbay. -- Evelyn Ryan
"Thru "tug-a-long" relay. -- Mrs. Kelly Joseph Ryan
"This "Teacher's Pet" rates "A." -- Mrs. Kelly Ryan
"Rx: Blow, then throw away. -- Evelyn L. Ryan"
This story resonated for me, because I lived through those times. I see much of my own mother's spirit in Evelyn Ryan My family was not as poor as the Ryans and my dad rarely drank, but times were tough. I was rarely allowed to go to the ten cent Saturday matinee and my brother's and my paper routes contributed to the family welfare. We ate out about once a year -- in the YMCA cafeteria.
I think that it would for you as well -- whether or not you lived through the depression of the 1930s. Mrs. Ryan was a genuinely good person and she sets a high standard for us all. And her daughter tells her story well.