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School Days

School Days

From Mary Zigan’s memoir, An Upside-Down Heart


My grandchildren find it hard to get their heads around their grandma spending her first eight grades of school in one room. However, in the late ’40s early ’50s that was typical for kids who lived in the country. Usually there were 15 to 20 kids for all the grades, and of course there was only one teacher. We had a potbelly stove that heated our one room.  In the winter when my sister Sharon and I walked the mile to school, our teacher sometimes had a basin of warm water waiting where we could soak and thaw out our feet next to the stove.  We had no such thing as indoor plumbing, so we used the two-hole outhouse a short walk behind our school.                   

Lunch time was a highlight.  If you were willing, there would be a lot of sandwich trading.  Anyone who had something better than a pickle sandwich was willing to trade up. Typically, Mother packed an egg salad or Spam sandwich for me, and I would sometimes be willing to trade half my sandwich for an apple.  A lot of families in our neighborhood were extremely poor.  Occasionally, a milk delivery truck dropped off half-pint glass bottles of milk in the cloak room. Because there were fewer chocolate than white pints of milk delivered, there was always a race for the chocolate flavor.

By the time I was a fifth grader, I was pretty mature.  My classmate Arlys and I had put away the Sears Roebuck paper dolls that we had cut out of the catalog and played with at recess. Now we had our personal diaries with little gold keys to lock up all our secrets. At recess we would take out our diaries and share our hopes and dreams. One of my secret dreams was to be a pastor’s wife, cherished and loved.

One of the most significant surprises during my high school years was when I was chosen to play one of the lead characters in the junior class play.  I was Maudie’s mother in “Maudie and the Opposite Sex.”

This was not a glamorous role, but it was a part that was tailor-made for me.  Though the character “Ma” called for a dowdy housedress, apron, and old-fashioned high-heeled oxfords, I still felt like a star.  If I wasn’t there, the show couldn’t go on.

After the play, I suddenly became very popular with my school friends. They said I was quick-witted and had a wacky sense of humor. My heart was feeling a flutter of hope that maybe I had a place in the world after all.

On stage playing “Ma” gave me a real sense of belonging.   No wonder kids in school began calling me Ma after the play, which became my new name until I graduated. To this day, “Ma” fits me perfectly. Today I am being called Ma for different reasons.  I am a spiritual ma to many, a biological ma, a step-ma, a grand-ma and a great-grandma. I love to nurture, so Ma is who I love being.

Mrs. Allen, the director of the play, thought I was terrific. She was impressed enough to seek out my mother on the night of the final performance and say, “If that daughter of yours doesn’t go into acting, she’s missed her calling.”

I didn’t miss my calling…you may want to read about it in my Memoir, An Upside-Down Heart!


Just Being Kids in 1954

Following is an excerpt from Mary Zigan’s new book, An Upside-Down Heart, which was published last month.  In keeping with our August picnic theme, she has selected the following vignette from Chapter Five of her memoir.


The Big Lake


Sundays in the summer after morning farm chores, we could hardly wait to head north. Heading North meant being at Grandpa and Grandma’s cabin on Mille Lacs lake along with other relatives. Usually, Sharon and I would be singing in the car all the way because our first stop was the little community church in Cove Bay.  When we walked into the church–typically, about 15 people made up the congregation—invariably somebody would say, “Here come the Sorensen sisters.  That’s our music for today.” We would proudly sing one or two hymns.

Mother would always bring food to the lake in order to add to everyone else’s supply in the family. One thing we kids dreaded was the “one hour wait after lunch to go swimming” restriction. No one was allowed to break this rule!  We would walk through the woods to get to the Big Lake for swimming.  The big lake was the larger side of Mille Lacs and had a public access with more beach front. We detested the blood suckers we encountered while swimming, but knew they would come right off with salt when we returned to the cabin. At one time or another, all of my cousins, Jan, Gloria, KD, Pat, Kaye, Dean, Jack, and Jay, played in those waters. We often ended up with beet-red sunburns.  Noxema gave some relief!

Our times spent at the lake with cousins and family are happy remembrances.

©Mary Zigan, 2015

NOTE:  Mary Zigan will be the keynote speaker October 2-3 at a Faith & Fellowship God Chicks Conference for women, hosted by Advent Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, MN.  If you are in the Twin Cities area, and would like to attend, email for additional information at