My mother learned to read at 63 - she was still the smartest woman I know

It didn’t take education or money for my mama to feel compassion, to reject prejudice and hatred. She taught me to feel empathy, and I cherished it

It was a couple of hours after I got off the school bus one day in 1969 when my destiny was set.

We were living on Fork Road in rural Neshoba county, Mississippi. I was precocious, skinny as a French green bean and with a mouth filled with bad country grammar. I usually watched TV or played outside until my mother got home from the factory where she ironed pants while her mother watched me.

The job had provided her a social life independent from Daddy and his overbearing family. She had married him in the middle of a dirt road called Frog Level when she was 14 to get away from her own abusive father.

It was a big year in my small world: my school was barreling fast toward forced integration over Christmas break, and about three months before, my alcoholic and depressed father had died of a heart attack in front of me. My two older brothers were grown, living in other towns.

On that fall day, though, I was eight years old, happy, and kept looking at the kitchen clock to see when Mama would pull up. Finally, I heard the turquoise Chevrolet crunching the driveway gravel.

My 46-year-old mother came through the carport door into the den, her jet-black beehive looking deflated and tired. Before she could set her purse down, I was in her face.

“Mama, Mama, look! I learned to write like a grown-up today!”

She reached slowly for the white paper. She stared at the huge cursive writing on it, and I assumed she was reading the simple words like “school” and “horse” and my own name through her thick, black-rimmed glasses.

Suddenly, she lurched toward me, hugging me with the paper crunched between us. She held me longer than usual, and I saw the tears creeping from under her glasses. She pulled me to the couch.

“Sit down and listen, Donner Kay. I have something to tell you,” she said, sniffing.

“Honey, your mama never went to school a day in her life,” she said. “I don’t know how to read or write. And I don’t want nobody to know but you.” I stared at her in shock. I had seen her sign her name methodically many times. “I want you to start helping me, alright?”

“I will, Mama. I promise,” I pledged, not knowing to what.

But we were a team in a world that wasn’t all that kind to us, and I was about to start writing checks, paying bills, reading her mail, helping her sell Avon beauty products, anything to help enable her to quietly survive in a written world.


A few days after we buried Daddy in May, Grandpa Ladd and my aunt paid us a visit.

I was still in my nightie top, chasing yellow butterflies around Mama’s glorious red rosebushes. Soon, I heard yelling through the screen door. “He was the breadwinner!” Pa Ladd bellowed about his son, my daddy.

Then the duo ran out and jumped into their car. My mama bolted after them, screaming. “You ain’t gone take what Donner Kay and I got left! Get out!” she bellowed.

Donna Ladd’s mother. ‘Her world was minuscule, options for women like her non-existent.’
Donna Ladd’s mother. ‘Her world was minuscule, options for women like her non-existent.’ Photograph: Donna Ladd

Pa Ladd had stopped by to tell her that my social security check – the one that would help me eat later in college – should go to the family, as should our house. My mama, who had held the only steady job in the family, wasn’t having it, and her raw power stunned me.

Back in 1960, my parents had moved to Florida to look for work, taking my brothers. Both got jobs in a plant, where Daddy quickly got on a manager’s track because his boss saw potential in him. He was good with people. But Daddy couldn’t take the pressure. With his third-grade country education, Daddy didn’t believe he could be more than a laborer.

So they returned to their old Mississippi life. Back home, in a stultifying small town filled with combustible hate in the early 1960s, it all derailed. She was pregnant with me and he spiraled into his bottle, exploding into rage and physical abuse of her. He drove a cab and painted houses some, got into bloody knife fights, coached a baseball team and apparently had a dalliance with one of the players’ teenage sisters that yielded me a half sibling growing up in Oklahoma.

Mama kept trying to get Daddy to get help; his father always intervened and said the family would take care of him. But they didn’t. It was constant chaos, and a woman who couldn’t read a lease or the phonebook had no way out.

My mother’s world was minuscule, options for women like her non-existent.


As an adult, I wondered why my great-uncle, Jimmie Ladd, and his progeny were so much better off than Pa Ladd’s kids. One day in my late 40s, I finally understood.

I was trying to find my half-sibling – I still haven’t – and started poking around genealogical records, which shocked me in multiple ways. For one, I descend from numerous slaveholders, Confederate soldiers and land-grant recipients due to war service back to the Revolutionary war. Most of them could read and had flourishing handwriting; nearly all were English.

So much for the old saw that we, like the myth most white Mississippians believe, were Scotch Irish, too poor to own slaves, and illiterate from the start. Instead, and like many, my family grew less educated since the civil war. Uncle Jimmie could read and write, documents show, but his brother, Pa Ladd, could not.

The documents also proved a suspicion: even as education levels decreased over time for men in my family tree, the women got nothing from the beginning. Census records show grandmothers all the way back to England as baby machines, with long lists of children barely a year apart. They cooked, cleaned, gave birth. I think of it as cyclical and intentional diseducation, a guarantee that women couldn’t survive on their own even if they were abused at home.

That tradition was in full force when my mother was born in 1924. Her five brothers all got some education in one-room country schools, she told me, but she didn’t get to go a single day because her father kept her home to cook for the field hands. He would viciously beat her if she sassed him. She was loyal until she couldn’t take it any more.


I was living hand-to-mouth, waitressing, typing papers for New School students and trying to get published in New York City in the late 1980s when Mama called.

We chatted about nonsense for a while before she choked it out. “Well, Donner, there’s this class up at the high school this summer,” she said. “They say they can teach me to read and write. I’m trying to decide whether …”

“Of course, you should do it! That would be so wonderful. I’d be so proud of you,” I answered.

She was 63 and had survived two alcoholic husbands and was an expert at buying and selling garage sale junk to keep food on her own table and buy Christmas presents for me and my brother’s kids. She used food stamps to buy groceries.

Mama laughed, seemingly with relief. “Well, you know, I’d about gotten used to being the dumbest old lady in town,” she said.

It turns out that her younger friend, her neighbor in the low-income apartment complex she was living alone in, had found the class for her. The young woman had been doing Mama’s “business” for a while in my absence, helping to allay my guilt over leaving Mississippi. The friend was batshit crazy, but Mama liked her. She was real and, by then, I hated pretension as much as Mama did. When I was little she would tell me: “Remember, Donner Kay, nobody’s better than anybody else.”

Three months into the class, Mama left a frantic message on my answering machine: “Donna, I taught a class tonight!” She was almost singing the words. “The teacher let me teach the class!” She soon wrote me a letter in a careful, boxy print I had never seen, instead of the awkward way she had long written family names she had memorized, and she no longer said my name like a Santa’s reindeer.

The next time I flew home to visit, we both giggled like 12-year-olds as she read words from billboards on the way from the airport. Her grammar was getting better. She gushed about her classes, and loved the other students.

Later that night, Mama showed off her literacy books. She was taught to write sentences such as: “We need to make our streets safe”, “I’m going to shop for groceries” and “I’m going out on a blind date tonight”. I flipped through a history reader she hadn’t started yet called America’s Story, to 1865 and swelled with pride at how much she would soon know.

I suddenly had a thought. “Read to me, Mom,” I said. “Read one of your books to me.”

She looked flushed, but nodded. She opened to a page in her Laubach skill book with a bookmark and started reading: “Kitty O’Toole had her first job. She had just finished business school.”

I dropped to the floor and leaned my head on her knees to listen to her sound out the odd sentences and short paragraphs. It was always hard for me when my friends mentioned their parents reading them to sleep. I didn’t have any favorite books until I was old enough to pick them for myself.

A new world was opening to my mother. She started picking up newspapers to try to read the stories. She couldn’t understand most of the big words yet, but she got an idea of what they were saying. She started to encounter more of what was going on in the world past the Neshoba county line.


Less than a year into the literacy classes, something changed. My mother quit laughing. She fell into a deep depression, and abruptly stopped going to her literacy classes. My older brother, who by then lived in town, tried to talk to her. My other brother went home to check on her. Nothing worked. She told them she just wasn’t happy.

I called from New York to cheer her up. “What’s wrong, Mama?” I cajoled. “Please tell me. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”

Donna Ladd’s mother in her garden.
Donna Ladd’s mother in her garden. Photograph: Ken Ladd

“I don’t know, Donna,” she answered. “I just don’t feel good.”

I soon went home, hoping to solve the mystery. When she picked me up at the airport, she barely said a word. She hadn’t done her hair. She wasn’t wearing makeup.

It took two days before I broke through. I cried and begged for nearly an hour as she sat staring out the window at the little kids playing in the courtyard. She refused to say anything but “I just don’t feel good”. My brother had made an appointment with a psychiatrist for the next week, but I sensed something specific was behind her depression.

“Mama,” I finally said, “you quit your literacy classes. You loved them so much. Why would you do that?”

She stared directly at me, the first time she’d looked at me straight since I had arrived.

“I had to,” she said. Her tears started flowing again.

“Why? Did someone there do something to you? Did someone hurt you? Tell me, Mama, please.”

“No, no, no.” She looked at her hands, which held little damp wads of tissue. Her fingernails had tiny specks of nail polish here and there.

“I couldn’t stand it no more. I couldn’t learn no more.”

I kneeled in front of her. “Were you having trouble in your classes?” I whispered.

Mama took a deep breath and looked at me through her tears.

“I just realized how much I don’t know,” she said. “All these years, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.”

I fell forward and held her. We both cried until we couldn’t any more.


Soon, Mama was prescribed antidepressants, and her mood improved. She started joking again and driving her green Dodge Dart to all her friends’ houses.

Over time, she began planning her first trip to visit me in New York. Before, she had been scared to go to the big city. My brothers and I soon helped her buy a little house on the other side of town. She fixed it up, fried her chicken and baked her cornbread, and invited her friends over.

She did not return to her literacy classes.

Just weeks before her planned trip to New York, my mother died of a heart attack at age 65. After the funeral, I started the arduous chore of sorting out her life. I saved her cedar chest for last. I knew it was probably a box full of emotion waiting to explode.

It contained her most treasured belongings: an old Bible, birth certificates, my baby booties, the contents of my father’s pockets when he died. Buried in the bottom were several dozen literacy books and readers, and stacks of papers and exams.

Flipping through her workbooks, I saw my mother’s handwriting, the checkmarks on the pages, her doodles of hearts and her own name in the margins. It was chilling to see that my mother’s hand had formed so many words and letters, that she had read a lifetime of sentences in a few short months.

I had often told my friends up north that my mother was the smartest person I knew, and I meant it. She had hidden her illiteracy, after all, memorizing how to write her name and that of her kids for decades by writing them over and over again. It didn’t take education or money for her to feel compassion, to help people of all races and backgrounds, to reject prejudice and hatred in a town known for it, to stop using the n-word when I told her it was wrong. She had taught me to feel empathy, and I cherished it as much as I loved every piece of her.

But that day yielded proof I suspect I’d always wanted. The evidence was right there in grey lead, in the teacher’s measured hand: 100, 98, 99, 100.

My mother was anything but dumb. In the only class she ever took, Miss Katie had near-perfect scores.


Donna Ladd

The GuardianTramp

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