"If Life serves you Lemons, make Lemonade "

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio     by Terry Ryan

Simon and Schuster, 2001,  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern 6-25-2005


      The subtitle--"How my Mother raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less"--is a good summary of this sunny, cheerful biography, by an adoring daughter. It is about life in a small town in the American heartland, and in the time described, the '50s and '60s, that town still throbbed with activity. As the end of the book makes clear, things have changed--gone are the Burma-Shave signs, trading stamps, automotive tail fins and advertising jingles. But the stories remain

    You might be reminded here of "Cheaper by the Dozen," by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth-Carey. Both books describe the trials and joys of raising a large, cohesive family, but there exists a glaring difference. The Gilbreths of "Cheaper by the Dozen" were well-off and secure--the father was a well-known efficiency expert, whose services were widely sought by industry--whereas the Ryans constantly lived on the edge of poverty. Not only was the father a low-pay industrial worker, he was an alcoholic who spent too much of his pay on drink, before giving his family access to the rest.

    It could have made a depressing story, yet the actual tone is upbeat, thanks to the personality of Evelyn Ryan. A true saint--resourceful, cheerful, inventive--she had a sideline which often brought in a few dollars, a few times even more. She wrote. Mostly she entered jingles or slogans for commercial contests (a big thing in those years, relying heavily on puns), or contributed tidbits as "fillers" to local papers. Aunt Lucy, living on a nearby farm with no children of her own, also helped keep the wolf away from the door, but it was Evelyn's writing which provided the sparkle. Younger family members aided and abetted her creative process, were drawn together by it, and their stories add to the unique and delightful atmosphere of this book.

    For most people, contests based on rhymes, puns and slogans are on a par with lotteries--you do not expect to win, and you hardly ever do. Such contests are mostly gone, anyway--only lotteries remain. Evelyn Ryan beat the odds surprisingly often, and that could make a big difference--paying for a house, replacing worn appliances, even acquiring at no cost Christmas gifts for all family members.

    Where does such talent come from? The author (who herself works for the San Francisco Chronicle) credits her mother's skill to a stint with a small-town newspaper at age 20. The entire staff numbered three: a dedicated editor, a grumpy printer (who set type by hand) and Evelyn. The editor was Evelyn's conscientious mentor, and between them, the two produced a full paper every week. That is where Evelyn learned about writing, about style, vocabulary and wit, and all this served her well throughout life.

    A frequent aphorism says, "if life serves you lemons, make lemonade," and this lady sure made some delicious lemonade! Here you will find a string of lively stories, some bittersweet, with jingles and pictures strewn throughout. About the chick raised by a cat along with her own kittens, a cat crafty enough to open doors--also about the baseball careers of the Ryan kids, about the 10-minute shopping spree Evelyn won from the supermarket, about the joyride her sons took in the family car (reaching the pedals was a problem but could be overcome) ... and about the time her drunk husband shoved her hard enough to send her to the hospital. But enough of telling--no shortcuts can convey the bubbling enthusiasm which welded those ten kids and their mom into a resilient family. You'll have to read it yourself. And then you might well tell yourself, "ain't I lucky?"


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 25 June 2005