Excerpt: ‘Irma: The Education of a Mother’s Son’

Terry McDonell’s memoir tells the story of his widowed mom’s life through that of his own.

terry mcdonell, irma
Thomas McDonell; Harper



He hated secrets. There were already too many things he did not want to know, and they prowled around in his head long after his innocence was gone and he could speak for himself.


After Bob goes down, it is just Irma and me. Men notice. I hear them say Irma is a dish. Irma drives a Chevy Club Coupe with a jump seat that folds down flat. Irma likes to drive and sometimes I sleep in the back. We get around.

We move to places where she and Bob lived when he was a fighter pilot. There is always an Air Station, like the US Naval Air Station at Norfolk, where I was born. After Norfolk we live in Memphis, and then Gulf Breeze, which is part of Pensacola. I have no memory of Norfolk or Memphis or Pensacola, although I have been back to look at them. They mean nothing to me now.

Irma went to college and gets to be a schoolteacher anywhere she wants, like Orange, Texas. She never lived there with Bob, but there is an Air Station, and she knows some of the pilots from when Bob was not dead. Orange is where I start remembering things, like my first cowboy boots, which Irma gives me on Easter Sunday, the same day I get my first bee sting. I have a photograph. I am in my boots, with shorts and kid suspenders. That is all I am wearing.

I am playing on the lawn and the bee gets me on my knee. I run to our porch and one of Irma’s friends from the Air Station pulls apart one of his Chesterfields and tapes the tobacco on my sting. He says it will fix me right up, and it does. I do not remember his name, which is not right because he sleeps over sometimes and we roughhouse before I go to bed. He tells me clover is coming up on the lawn or there would not be any bees. I remember that too, just not his name.

When Irma gets tired of Texas, we drive the Chevy back to Minnesota to live with Nana and Pops in Duluth, where Irma and Bob fell for each other. The house is on High Street, and has a long porch across the front. Irma says this is where Bob was a little boy, and shows me how you can see Lake Superior from the porch.

As soon as we get inside and stop hugging each other, Nana looks at my cowboy boots and tells Irma they will ruin my feet. I make up how I am pretty sure Bob had cowboy boots. Everybody laughs, and I think Irma will say it is okay for me to have my boots, but Nana takes them off me and puts them away, like we never even lived in Orange, Texas. When I start to cry, Pops tells me Bob never cried.

On Saturdays, we drive out to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in Solon Springs, where Irma was a little girl. Irma calls her mother Fronie, which is short for Sophronia, so I call her Fronie too. My grandpa is just Grandpa. They have a cow named Bossy the Cow and chickens that I like, and an old dog that never wants to play. Fronie bakes bread. The room where I sleep with Irma has tiny rosebuds all over the walls. When I lie down for my nap, I wonder how many there are, but I cannot count that high.

Grandpa has a workshop in a shed next to the barn, and he makes a bench for me to sit on in the back of Irma’s Chevy. I want to help because it is my bench, but when I ask him if I can hammer the nails, he shakes his head, which means I am supposed to be quiet. Or maybe he does not like me much.

When I tell Fronie how my Nana made Irma take my cowboy boots away, she looks at me funny and I think I have done something wrong. Fronie says, “She’s the one with the money.” I do not know what that means. Or maybe I do. Later, I hear her talking to Grandpa. Fronie says it is not good for a boy to be raised only by women. She tells him to pay more attention to me, but he does not have time.

Nana gives me a cowboy hat to make up for my boots and then hugs me. I say I do not want the hat because I cannot be a cowboy without my boots and she hugs me harder and then lets go fast. Irma says I can be a cowboy later. Pops tells me I am the man of the family now, so I must take good care of Irma. I have heard that before, but I do not know how to take care of Irma. I tighten myself. No more crying. Nana says I am just like Bob, and I believe her.

I can say Nana’s phone number. Hemlock-142. I am cute like that. Pops teaches me how to ask grown-up questions when his friends come over, like “How about a highball?” Sometimes they pull nickels out of my ears. I sit on Pops’s lap and listen to them talk about the war. Pops likes to talk about my uncle Jack, who is Bob’s younger brother and a pilot too. Pops says Jack is just like Bob except he bombed the Nazis in France. Jack got shot down on a night mission but was such a good pilot he made a crash landing. That was how he saved his crew.

I like the story Jack always tells about when he finally comes home from the war to the house on High Street and I am a year old and he is in his uniform and smoking a cigar and it is the first time he sees me and he picks me up and tosses me over his head with his arms up to catch me but on my way down he puts his cigar out on my forehead. Jack knew right then that we were going to get along because I did not cry. Sometimes people listening to Jack give each other looks like maybe he is fooling, but they do not know anything.

Irma does not like stories about the war because people die, like Bob. Pops never talks about Bob, but Irma always stays in the kitchen with Nana and Nana’s friends, who talk about how the war is over and what they did when they found out. One night, when Irma is tucking me in, I ask her what we did. She says we drove downtown in Duluth, where people were riding around honking their horns. Then we just came home. Irma says I will understand when I’m not a little boy anymore.

I see Irma is sad, which makes me think about Bob. I make up a story about how Bob shot down a hundred Jap Zeros before they got him. We sneak up to Nana’s attic, where there is a trunk of Bob’s uniforms. Irma shows them to me and says we are going to move again. “California,” she whispers because it is a secret. She hands me a leather case with Bob’s wings and ribbon bars inside.

“California,” Irma says again, and hugs me. “We’ll take good care of each other.”

I turn Bob’s wings over in my hands.


Irma buys a new Ford convertible so we can drive to California with the top down. It is a color nobody has heard of called maroon, which I say is my new favorite color. I have my own suitcase and Irma lets me bring the bench I made with my Grandpa. Bob’s trunk is not coming with us, but we are going to send for it. Irma puts suntan lotion on me because we are working on our tans. We eat at drive-ins and stay in motels. Every morning Irma tells me where we were going to stop for the night.

“Cheyenne, Wyoming,” she says, on the third morning. “They have a rodeo.” Irma pulls my cowboy hat out of her bag and I put it on and she takes a picture with her Brownie camera to send to Nana. When we get to Cheyenne, Irma parks in front of a cowboy store with rodeo posters in the window. We go inside and I pick out boots with six-shooters on them. I am thinking I need a cap gun, but Irma and I have talked about how I must be six to have a cap gun, and I am only four.

Our motel has a neon sign with a bronc buster waving his hat over the gravel entrance. Maybe I will be a bronc buster too, because I have my boots and hat on, with shorts and suspenders like in Texas. I follow Irma into the office, where a woman with piled-up hair and a scarf around her neck is behind a high desk. Next to her in a stuffed chair is a man smoking a cigarette under a big cowboy hat. Next to the man is a boy maybe a year older than me eating out of a box of Cheerios with his pudgy fists. He stares at me, and I stand close to Irma while she signs us in.

The boy is wearing boots that are brown and scuffed, and bib-front overalls with no T-shirt. The man in the chair nudges him forward, and the boy holds out the box of cereal to me. When I reach to take it, he pulls it back and punches me in the stomach. I bend over and roll onto the floor, but I do not cry.

“I guess my boy don’t care much for little dudes,” the man says, and then laughs a loud bark.

Irma picks me up and carries me to the car and we find our room, where we sit on the bed. Irma says the rodeo will still be fun. I do not want to go, but Irma says we are going and makes me wear my boots and hat. We find our seats in the grandstand and a guy who I can tell is a real cowboy turns around and tells Irma it looks like she has a tough little buckaroo there, and she tells him he has that right. I like how Irma and the cowboy are getting along so good. I like the rodeo too, and at the end they have fireworks, which I have never seen before.

Back at the motel I flop down on the bed and Irma sits next to me and rubs my back. She says she is proud of me and I pretend to fall asleep. She takes off my boots and puts a blanket over me. Pretty soon, she gets up and I hear the door open and close. I know she will be right back, but I listen for her in the darkness until light is coming through the window.

Salt Lake City,” Irma says, when we get in the Ford that morning. “Maybe we’ll meet some Mormons.” She is kind of laughing, like there’s something funny about Mormons. She tells me that if I were a Mormon I could have as many wives as I wanted. I know it is a joke, but I do not get it.

We listen to the car radio all day. Irma’s favorite song is “Que Sera Sera” by Doris Day. I want to know why and she says because it is pretty and true at the same time. We go over the words, about how the future is not ours to see because whatever will be will be.

We do not meet any Mormons in Salt Lake City because we only stop at a gas station with souvenirs. Irma buys me a postcard with a little bag of salt sewn onto a picture of the lake.

We keep driving.

Irma says we are going to pick up the pace, which makes me happy. We are hopeful in ways that promise transformation, although I do not think like that then. Irma will teach school and have a new life without Bob. I will be exactly like Bob except I will wear my cowboy boots. I lie down in the back seat and think about that kid back at the motel. I can see the future, or part of it anyway: the part where I never let any kid beat me up because I am a tough buckaroo fighter pilot. Sometimes I suck on that little bag of salt.

We drive all night. I wake up when we stop for gas. Elko, Reno, Sacramento, and then it is morning and we are at a motel on the El Camino Real in Santa Clara.

Norm is waiting for us.



He did not think about growing up. He thought about where he lived, and lived there in real time until things happened that made him think about the future. These things did not change the trees or the birds or the other things he liked. He was never tired, unyielding, although he did not yet understand that came from his mother.


Norm is tall and thin like a rake handle. He knew Irma and Bob when they were young together. I do not know that when I meet Norm, but I figure it out later, like I figure out a lot of things. Irma tells me Norm was in the war like Bob, except not a fighter pilot. She hugs me and says we are a family with Norm now.

We live at the motel. I sleep on a cot Irma makes into a bed for me. She and Norm pencil circles in the classifieds every morning. When they go out, I stay at the motel. I am the only kid there, but the owners have a scotty dog they call Scotty that they let me play with sometimes. Irma comes back and reads to me every afternoon, which is my favorite time. The rest is just time.

Norm says we are pals and gives me an insignia patch from the Persian Gulf Command. He says he wore it in lots of battles, but it is stiff and feels new. I like it anyway because it has a white star and a red sword. Norm tells me the sword is a scimitar, that the ancient Persians used to chop heads, heads my age, even baby heads. The star is from the Kingdom of Iraq, which he says has a stupid religion that makes you go to hell if you look at women. Norm says it was hot as hell there and he drove bulldozers and Caterpillar tractors with bullet shields and built airstrips. After that, he was in Venezuela, which he will tell me about when I am older. Norm says now that he is in California, he is going to build subdivisions, which is what he is planning when he sits on the motel porch and drinks beers and smokes his Chesterfields, like the guy in Texas.

One afternoon, Irma tells me we are going to leave early the next morning, but we cannot tell the people who own the motel because it will hurt their feelings. Norm asks me if I can keep a secret. I can because I like the motel people and their Scotty, and I do not want to hurt their feelings. Irma wakes me up in the dark and carries me to the car. I remember it was a secret that we were coming to California.•

Excerpted from Irma: The Education of a Mother’s Son by Terry McDonell, © 2023 by Robert T. McDonell, to be published by Harper on April 11, 2023.



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Terry McDonell has published widely as a journalist, top-edited a number of magazines, and was elected to the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 2012.
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