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My mother's beautiful, broken brain

Her mother died at age 74, after two decades of knowing that "something was going wrong.” In her new memoir, Ann Hedreen tells her mother's story - and her own.
Author Ann Hedreen's memoir of her mother.

Author Ann Hedreen's memoir of her mother. Credit: She Writes Press

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from author Ann Hedreen's new memoir "Her Beautiful Brain." She will be reading from the book on Sunday, September 7th, 3 p.m., at the Elliott Bay Bookstore.

I had a new nightmare: I was suffocating in the giant breasts of Miss Weis, as she surrounded me and contorted my fingers into unnatural positions and — from just next to my ear — yelled her commands to the class. “Ready, go! The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  Faster! The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Faster! The quick brown fox…”

Louder and louder she shouted, as I struggled for breath, trapped inside her titanic bosom. Gone were the old dreams of giant spiders under my bed or my braces being tightened by a plumber’s wrench. Miss Weis now reigned supreme over my nights, screaming about the Quick Brown Fox and the lazy dog, predicting my doomed future: unable to get a good secretarial job, I would wander the earth in search of work as a waitress, a maid, a janitor. 

It was 1969. I was 12 years old. Fall semester, eighth grade, Nathan Eckstein Junior High School, Seattle, Washington. I had no future because I could not type. 

Ah, Miss Weis! You saw my clumsy fingers and you feared for me. You sized up my pointy tortoise shell glasses and my mouth full of braces and yes, you feared for me. You knew that girls like me had to learn to type. You knew that all that noise about times allegedly a-changing was just that, noise, and that your mission was to form the fingers of vulnerable girls, to train their hands, before their heads got all filled up with this all new noise about college and careers and, God forbid, Women’s Lib.

Ah, Miss Weis. You gave me my first C.  Maybe you grieved for me a little as you noted it in your ledger. But then you moved on to the next semester: six more class periods, 30 students per period.  A few boys, but you ignored them, those lazy dogs, because you knew they didn’t need you. The girls needed you.    

And I moved on too, like a quick brown fox, running as fast as I could from the future as envisioned by Miss Weis. 

And the times, they did change. Fancy east coast colleges decided they wanted geographic diversity and public school kids, and Wellesley College gave me a scholarship. 

And typewriters changed too. Correct-tape was invented, thank the Lord.  Electric typewriters were now affordable, and Mom gave me a little blue Royal as a high school graduation present. And, just as Miss Weis had predicted, typing kept my body and soul together. I typed all of one summer at my grandfather’s insurance company, convinced I was going crazy.  But by the end of that summer I was able to type faster than I could think.  At college, I typed other girls’ papers for cash. After college, my first job title was “secretary” at a Boston publishing company, where I was given charge of my very own Queen of All Typewriters, the IBM Selectric. Miss Weis would have been astounded by the speeds I reached: 60, 70, 100 words per minute. Fingers flying, hands properly arched, off I went, typing my way into adulthood. 

Just as my mom had, a quarter century earlier. Divorced, with two small children and one year at the University of Montana, it was her typing and her math skills that got her in the door at a life insurance company.  

When I was 21 and in that first job, smarting a little every time I saw the word “secretary” next to my freshly graduated name, there was a part of me that felt defeated by the world, by the fact that I was doing exactly what my mother had done to stay alive, back in the dark ages of the early fifties. There was a part of me that felt ashamed for having taken the Little, Brown personnel director at her word when she explained that “all of our young women start as secretaries, while our young men start as sales reps.” It was 1978.  I should have stormed out of the office. Many of my Wellesley classmates would have. But I was paying my own rent, and I was being offered a job in publishing, and I took it. And though it wasn’t right or fair that it was the ONLY start offered me by personnel director Cindy Cool (her real name), it was a start. 


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