Updated: Apr 15
My mom typed on a manual Underwood typewriter at eighty words a minute, typo-free. And this was done with the tips of her long manicured fingernails. Even the smallest error required the document to be typed over again. I remember her scoffing at the new inventions of carbon paper for this thing called a carbon copy (cc), and eventually, White-Out. “The world’s going soft,” she muttered over the exhaled smoke of a cigarette. She could actually spell words like ‘meringue’ or ‘tourniquet’ without relying on a squiggly red line appearing under the word. I often wish I could have introduced her to Google docs. So, one can imagine the colossal undertaking when she authored her first book. I remember as a child being forbidden from the living room as the entire carpet was strewn with spread-out typewritten pages of whatever chapter she was editing. 'Cut and paste’ was exactly that. She would be sitting cross-legged on the floor in a pasture of papers with her giant sewing scissors and a pot of paste, snipping out paragraphs and phrases and gluing them elsewhere. She had a system.
She was a single mother of six, held a job, maintained the household, sewed together most of our clothes, was a social matriarch, played piano and painted portraits, and still found the time to author a memoir about her eight-year marriage in Mexico titled: Señora Jim. It, unfortunately, was never published, but she never stopped writing. Quiet times, which were rare, found her plinking away on her Underwood writing letters, thoughts, and essays. It seems she always had one project or another simmering away. Then she had an idea for a new book about my motorcycle trip across the country. She wanted to call it, California High. I was twenty years old in 1979 when I stepped into the world on a wing and a prayer. Actually, it was a tiny Suzuki 550 street bike. San Francisco was always my destination and one chilly fall morning, I watched Kalamazoo, Michigan shrink in my side mirrors as I merged onto I-94 West. A week later I was crossing the Bay Bridge with ten bucks in my pocket. This book was to be that story.
I was home for the holidays when my mother hatched the idea. A few years had passed, and we all stayed up late around the fireplace as I told the adventures of a small-town kid starting from scratch on the Barbary Coast. They were rich and hilarious yarns of my bungling, and of the kooks that I met along the way. That summer, my mom bought a ticket to San Francisco and stayed at my apartment for a month. Other than her suitcase, all she brought for writing was a tablet, some pens, and a cassette tape recorder with a fresh pack of blank tapes. We sat for hours over high-test corner café espresso and chocolate cake. She filled my apartment with menthol smoke and recorded hours of my stories, many of them lurching into the open decadence of SF’s inner-city culture — in 1979! (Before the AIDS pandemic.)
“Tell it like it was,” she would prompt me. “I can handle it.”
And handle it she did. By the end of her stay, she packed up the “gold” as she called the tapes, and flew back to Kalamazoo. A year later she had a manuscript.
Jean McCormack approached all of her projects with critical worry. It was fortunate that the Underwood, like many products of prior generations, was made of sturdy steel as she would frequently pound the keys in frustration. After a smoke break it was time to calmly untangle the jammed keys and resume spinning the silks of her writings. “Chewing nails and spitting tacks!” is how she referred to the process. The resulting manuscript became another of her children. She would cart it around in a satchel and hold it to her breast as if cradling a newborn. Edits and rejected drafts were never discarded, but kept in a chaos of order until the bulk of papers grew past the satchel and was heaped into a massive black garbage bag. (This was her solution for many things.) It never left her company and rode in the back seat of her rusted-out ‘58 Buick LeSabre.
But one day, the unthinkable happened. Mother nature’s hand came and deleted files. A lot of them. My mother never drove over 40 miles per hour as she would clutch the steering wheel, tormented, and lean into the windshield, crawling through the backroads with a perpetual cigarette clenched in her teeth. Somewhere in the farms of Michigan, a late summer gust of wind blew through the open windows of the car and scattered several chapters of the manuscript out of the open garbage bag and into an endless cornfield.
As she told the story later through tears of hilarity and frustration, I was able to create the scene. I’m certain she shrieked and veered off the road. I’m certain she leaped out of the car leaving the door open (as she would frequently do) and tore off into the field after the whirl of confetti pages blowing to the heavens. She spent hours hunting down the pages of nail chewing and tack spitting as tears streamed down her face. The image of my mother scrambling through a Michigan cornfield chasing down flying papers of dreams as her Buick sat idling on the side of the road with its door open and her squatty black dog, Tipper, watching from the passenger seat is forever with me. I remember her sobbing over the phone.
“I’ll never be able to re-write what was lost! This is a twisted knife in my heart! Damn the wind and damn the gods!”
Most writers have lost pieces of writing, usually through computer crashes and accidental deletion, but not many have sacrificed sacred prose to the children of the corn. So she rallied. She sat back down at the sturdy steel Underwood. She repaired the damage the tornado had wrought. Mom’s manuscript was reborn.
My mother rode around with that manuscript in the back seat of her car for a longer time than memory. When the old ‘58 Buick’s bottom finally rusted out in true Michigan car fashion, she transferred it all to the Maverick that replaced it. The manuscript went on many journeys of its own, even getting joy ridden one night when the Maverick got car-jacked and crashed. Mom had to go to the junkyard to dig it out of the wreckage. My brother-in-law, Dave, said she wrung her hands the entire way, dreading the worst, that the manuscript was lost forever, but the perps had rifled the bag and saw nothing of value; a validation of the swinging merits of worth. It was still there. They cared nothing for the garbage bag of loose papers in the back seat — she cared nothing for the car.
The guardian angels gave a hand that night.
My mother was proud. After several rejection letters, she declared that the publishing world was full of a bunch of “pretentious shit ass holes that didn’t deserve our stories!” She had a point. The manuscript fell to the dark regions of storage and out of our memories. My mother finally passed many years later.
I now have a book, a website, a growing catalog of writings, and a modest group of readers. It’s time to dig up Mom’s manuscript of my motorcycle trip across the country, dust it off and see what’s there. So, where the hell is it, I thought? I called my sister Rebeca in Michigan.
“Oh boy,” she said. “I haven’t seen that thing for decades. I know Mom considered it a family history gem and had it locked away. She did chase it across a cornfield, ya know.”
“So I remember,” I replied. “I’m sure it’s hidden in plain sight. Let’s dig around and see if we can bring it back to life.”
My sister searched and searched. We all searched. None of us could remember if Mom copied it or if there was only one. It was a mystery until fate got involved.
My wife and I live in an Edwardian pre-quake apartment building in San Francisco in the Lower Haight. Like any old building, it attracts rodents. An exterminator was brought in and it was determined that rats had set up camp in our crammed storage rooms under the building. It was time to clear them out and set some traps. In the furthest reaches of one of the rooms, there was a box of papers next to a rat’s nest. And in that box was a manila envelope with my mother’s handwriting on it. And in that envelope was Mom’s manuscript. She had sent me a copy thirty-five years ago. I had forgotten. It had been run through a mimeograph machine and I could still see the edges of where she had cut and pasted paragraphs. There were hurried edits in the margins written by her hand. I could still smell the cigarette smoke within the pages. I could still feel the love.
The manuscript now sits on my writing desk. Re-reading it has energized old war stories I haven’t told in decades. It’s funny how life feels like countless layers of memories are forever blanketing over us like silt, turning the threads of our youth into fossils. Then one day you clear out a storeroom and get beamed with a glimpse of the past and you realize that you’re still the same jackass you’ve always been; just with more wrinkles and a few more jokes. It may be time for Mom’s manuscript to finally tell its stories after all. Stay tuned.