39: An Ordinary Life

39: An Ordinary Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

An Ordinary Life

I’ve seen and met angels wearing the disguise of ordinary people living ordinary lives.

~Tracy Chapman

Mom turned seventy at home in Tennessee this year and celebrated with a trip to visit family in the Midwest. We sat on my red brick patio in the Chicago suburbs sipping iced tea. I was in a funk and though we talked often on the phone, it was easier to share my troubles face to face. I was second-guessing the years I spent focused only on family and felt my individual achievements didn’t measure up. My nest was empty and my plans for an accomplished life seemed like silly daydreams.

Mom listened and then I waited for her wise words to spur me to action or transform my attitude. Instead, she wiped the condensation off her glass, squinted her blue eyes against the bright sun, and said, “I always thought there was something special in store for me, too. Turns out, I was ordinary.”

She said it matter-of-factly, with a twinge of longing. The implication was that looking back on her eventful life, she was average, nothing special. Her revelation shocked me. I looked out over the many shades of green in the back yard and shared the first memory that came to mind. I asked if she remembered a certain Friday night after I’d dropped out of college.

It was around 8 p.m. and I was home with no plans. Again. The past months had been rough. I’d had a disastrous freshman year and had recently split up with my boyfriend of five years. I was new at work, and my high school friends were scattered at college or busy with boyfriends. I was nineteen and adrift. I felt abandoned and ashamed.

I paced our living room while my mom and stepdad watched a movie in the family room downstairs. They’d invited me but the only thing worse than spending Friday night alone would be watching movies on the couch with my parents. Even my younger siblings all had plans.

Looking back now from the comfort of my home and family, it’s easy to recognize the signs of depression. But I’d grown up in a family without much self-reflection. I was one of five kids raised in a string of rented houses by a single mother. She often worked double shifts as a waitress, machine operator, or bartender. She rarely made it home for dinner or even before bedtime. We were self-sufficient, thrifty and practical. We were also close-knit and optimistic. Mom was busy and had no time to dwell on sad things. If we had a bad day, a hug and a quick “you’ll survive” were usually enough.

Tonight was different. For the first time, I thought, maybe, I didn’t want to survive.

That was new and scary. I’d never felt hopeless before. I had turned on the radio and changed into a burgundy leotard and black tights, thinking exercise might improve my mood. My stomach ached and I folded my arms over it trying to contain the sad, empty feelings. Nothing helped.

My mind was racing. Why did he break up with me? Why couldn’t I hack it at school? Were normal kids my age at parties? Did my siblings think I was pathetic? What was wrong with me? My throat tightened and it was hard to breathe.

In a trembling voice, I yelled for her. “Mom? Mom!”

“Yeah, Suz?” she called over the television noise.

“Can you come here? Please?” I felt guilty about interrupting her. Tonight was her night off and she was relaxing with my stepdad.

Mom came upstairs, took one look at my red, tear-stained face, and wrapped me in her arms. She was little, 5’2” and 125 pounds, but tough. She had grown up poor, the second of five—just like me. She was a daddy’s girl, but also fierce and independent. She had little respect for men unwilling to work as hard as her and didn’t remarry until my senior year in high school.

Growing up, we missed having her home nights, but she never missed an assembly at school. We collected bottles for milk money but I got new cleats when I made the softball team. We shopped at yard sales and thrift stores but she bought my brother a new suit for his first homecoming dance. She was our Wonder Woman.

At nineteen, I was two inches taller than her, but I let her rub my back as I sobbed. I felt comforted by her touch and the faint whiff of her vanilla and coffee scent that penetrated my stuffy nose. I hiccupped, unable to take a deep breath.

“What’s wrong?”

“I… I’ve got no friends, no boyfriend. What’s wrong with me?” I dragged my arm across my face trying to compose myself but more tears fell.

Mom took me by the arm, sat me at the dining room table, and brought me a kitchen towel for my face. Then, my practical-by-necessity mom grabbed a yellow legal pad, a pencil and a ruler from the kitchen drawer and saved my life.

She didn’t know it at the time, but I’d had a fleeting picture in my head of how to end it. I’d never thought that before and I never have since. But I did that night.

Drawing a line down the middle of the pad, she wrote “PRO” on one side, “CON” on the other, and started listing all my positive qualities and accomplishments.

“Pro, you’re smart.” I rolled my eyes. High school was over and my honor roll triumphs were old news. College courses required effort, unlike many of my high school classes, and I’d spent more time socializing than studying. “You’re a wonderful big sister, writer, dancer…” She nudged me with her elbow. Even my brothers inherited our mom’s rhythm and we loved music and dancing. “You make delicious fruit cocktail, love to read, give great presents…” On and on she wrote. “You’re funny, you type fast, love to sing…”

She added a few CONs to make it fair. “You miss spots cleaning the toilet, you shed hair everywhere.” She moved back to the PRO side, listing the things she loved about me, listing the things my family valued.

I don’t remember how long this went on but she missed the whole movie. As she sat writing, my tears dried up and my breathing became easier. It wasn’t the items on her list that rescued me. Most parents believe their kids are great. It was her calm strength and the presence of mind she showed when making the list. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

I finished telling her the story about that long ago night, reached for my iced tea and watched Mom’s eyes widen in surprise. “Of course I remember that but I just thought you were upset.” She hadn’t realized what her presence meant to me that night.

Despite all she went through, Mom created magical Christmases with no money and turned popcorn dinners into celebrations. She taught us to laugh at ourselves, told ghost stories and encouraged us to stick up for others. She still makes quilts for each grandkid, bakes legendary bread pudding and occasionally jitterbugs in the kitchen.

I put my glass down, reached for her hand and told her the truth, “There is nothing ordinary about you.”

~Suzanne M. Brazil

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