What Should I Do Now?

Yesterday I applied for a part time job as a grocery clerk. It will be a miracle if I get it – I have absolutely no experience for this job. But I liked the idea of helping people who will not be sticking around. Is that rude? “See ya! Have a nice day!”

I’ve just finished Po Bronson’s “What Should I Do With My Life?”, published in the innocent year 2002 and you know what? No one’s life really goes according to plan. Or maybe it does and the hard lessons are part of it all.

In Po’s book, you won’t find any “how to’s” or lists to make of your skills and abilities. It is a book full of stories of ordinary people who have made changes or had to start over in their lives. He found, to his surprise, that most people did not make a change, no matter how unhappy they were, until they were forced to by one circumstance or another. I have to say, this really made me feel better.

Death to the Ego!

Some people have a rough time leaving a career with prestige and money. At least my ego has already been beaten into submission. My chosen career paid nothing and came with no prestige at all.

Being a stay at home Mom is so low on society’s rung that it takes massive courage to be able to hold your head high at any high school reunion or cocktail party. The first question out of everyone’s mouth as they sidle up to you, glass in hand, is, “What do you do for a living?” The minute you tell them, they get a kind of horrified look in their eyes and find someone else to talk to. Trust me on this!

Not everyone in this book turns out to be a “success” in the traditional sense, although they are still alive so presumably their story is still evolving. There really are no mistakes you can make because these turn out to be just as important as the successes. They form part of your whole life.

The Bard Speaketh

My copy is second hand and someone has written a quote on the first page, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” I just looked it up and it is from William Shakespeare.

Imagine that!

The Doubts Are Real

I am afraid to keep going sometimes – especially since I’m no spring chicken! Having to find a job and a way to pay my bills is not something I thought I’d have to do again at this age. I always imagined I’d be “rich” and be travelling in one of those awesomely huge motorhomes to warm places, with my handy and loving partner doing most of the driving. We’d stop for coffee at cool places and explore junk shops together. That was my dream for retirement.

No matter. This new “attempt” to begin again has been foisted on me and it’s kind of exciting, really. I am conscious that my grandchildren (hope I get some!) will tell the story of what I do now. I want my story to give them courage when they face a challenge, the way my Grandmothers’ stories have helped me. Man! I hope I don’t end up a cautionary tale!

Calling? What Calling?

Po was also surprised to find that almost no one had a “calling” and that at most they felt a “nudge” towards one thing or another.

That was how it was with me. All I really knew was that I wanted to be a Mom at some point in my life. I was the kid, at every family reunion, that packed around the babies and was the Pied Piper who had every little cousin following me, tugging on my sleeves, and vying for my attention. (I have over 50 first cousins – my Mom comes from a family of 16.) Many times I’ve wondered how my views on Mothering came to be so different than the mainstream.

Most of my life I’ve been friendly and agreed with everybody just to get along. When I can’t go along with society’s dictates, I feel like I’ve been backed into a corner. Sometimes it’s because I haven’t had the money to be like everybody else and sometimes I have an inner knowing that a course of action is just wrong for me or my family. (Conform or Be Cast Out: Have Courage Unvaccinated Friends)

On Being a Mom

My single greatest achievement is how I fought to raise my kids. I stood up for myself and my kids at a very vulnerable time in my life. At 24, during childbirth, I found myself up against an asshole GP and a few weeks later fighting off well-meaning public health nurses in order to continue breastfeeding. The nurse had been weighing and measuring my son and I was asking her some questions. She grew impatient and got up to go do something. I read my son’s chart upside down: “Mother is difficult.” Difficult! I was pleased by this! ME?! Difficult? Ha!

After that I found myself in a small town and realized that I couldn’t go along with everyone’s ideas of child rearing. I had to make a very tough decision and pull my son out of school when I saw he would be labelled by the only teacher in his grade. (She wasn’t wrong, he was a monkey and would have totally disrupted the class – I still say there is a whole generation of kids in that town that owe me, big time!)

I faced hostility, anger, and that isolation that, until this pandemic, only a very small town can throw at you. Still I stood up for my children and myself. I knew in my heart of hearts that it was the right thing to do for us.

I did this for years.

Highs and Lows

Sometimes I would cry over being slighted or be up all night composing things I should have said to a nasty comment from another Mother, casually tossed at me in the playground so that the others could laugh at me or feel superior. More than once, my husband’s relatives would get drunk and condemn my parenting style in front of everyone at a BBQ or party. Mostly, I didn’t say anything but took the high road.

With my own relatives, there was no holding back and I took the low road, of course.

Like the time my arrogant uncle yelled at my cousin to get his kid under control, right in front of everyone. Now this uncle was considered somewhat of a hero by the family because he’d gone to university and made “good.” He was a terrible father, however. Brilliant he might be but he was dictatorial and mean and all three of his kids were a mess. I felt for my cousin and piped up, “As if we should take parenting advice from you Uncle Dave – since you’ve done such a great job!” That got a laugh and shut him the hell up.

Raising Huckleberry Finn

I wasn’t always sure I was doing the right thing. Panic would set in when my son would get in trouble with a neighbourhood Mom. He had a knack for annoying those mothers who monitor every aspect of their children’s play and more than once I’d see one stomping her way down the street to tell me about his latest infraction.

Doubt would set in when he’d refuse to do normal “schoolwork,” too. I came to see that leaving my son to his own devices and staying out of his way as he planned his adventures was the best thing to do to encourage his creativity. But it gave me absolutely nothing to brag to my friends about. I just had to trust that he’d turn out OK. I tried to observe and intervene only when things got out of hand. Of course, I had to learn where the boundaries actually were.

The Bad News Kid

In that small town of about 2,000 people, one of the first kids my son met was a handful of a kid named Mason. He was about a year older and full of beans. There was no telling what he would – or wouldn’t – do. I was always slightly nervous when Mason was around because he could come up with things my son hadn’t thought of yet. Mason was always free and always up for anything.

Twice, before we knew anyone and were out for a walk, someone in a truck stopped, rolled down their windows and told me that I should not let my son play with Mason. He was bad news and a bad kid and would be a terrible influence on my son.

That was the kind of small town it was – once you were branded, that was it. Mason had no friends in that place. My sister-in-law worked at the daycare and said they used to call it “Mason’s Daycare” because he was the first one dropped off every morning and the last one picked up at night. It was especially odd because his parents were such nice people. They just didn’t want much to do with their children.

Poor Little Rich Kid

Mason’s family was well off and he would come over wearing the fanciest, matching outfits. One time I was painting the stairs outside our house and he asked if he could help. I said, “Sure – but you’d better go and change into some old clothes first.” He ran home and was back in 5 minutes in an equally nice set of clothes. I shrugged and handed him a brush. He got paint everywhere – completely ruined his outfit. I was sure his Mom would come over and give me hell but I never heard a word about it.

The only time I really worried about my son playing with Mason was when his sister would hang around. She was a good three years older and had a mean streak. I had to keep an eye on things very closely if she was in the yard.

Once, while I watched from inside the house, hiding behind the curtains, I saw her dip a stick into tar, grab hold of my cat and smear it all over the cat’s head. I quickly intervened, cleaned the cat up, and asked the kids who had done it. She denied it and so did Mason. I looked at my son and said, “Then it must have been you. You’re grounded.” My son howled in righteous anger but neither of the other kids spoke up as I hauled him inside.

When we got in the house I got down to his level and told him that I knew he didn’t do it – that I saw Mason’s sister put tar on our little cat. He was relieved and we talked about why she might have done it. He couldn’t believe that neither of them fessed up and thought it was unfair that they let him take the rap instead.

Mason came to the door every day but I explained that my son was grounded because the cat could have died. He would sort of slink away. I let it go after about a week.

Pippi Longstocking Party

When Mason’s 9th birthday rolled around, he came over to invite my son to his party. He had a whole day planned and went over every detail. I felt happy that his parents were giving him a party. I had never seen him with either one of his parents – and they lived not two blocks from us.

Our big problem was – what could we possibly get for this kid? He had everything – all the latest toys and games, even his own little motorbike to roar around in his yard. Finally we settled on a hammer and a bag of nails. My son was dubious but later Mason told me that it was the best present he’d ever received.

The day of the party came and my son could barely contain his excitement. He raced over at the appointed hour. I thought I’d walk by on my way downtown to wish Mason a happy birthday.

I could see the flames from down the block. The two boys had built a fire on the side of the road and were carefully tending it. I stood with them for a bit and listened as Mason explained that they were planning on roasting hotdogs, then riding his motorbike, and then eating cake. I realized that no one else had come to Mason’s party. There wasn’t a soul around. His parents weren’t even home.

The fire wasn’t large, by any means, but I got kind of a strange feeling about it as I walked away. Were there rules about building fires in town on the dirt beside the road? I wasn’t sure. I turned back, “You know, I am not sure about the fire, Mason,” I said, “I bet one of your neighbours will call the fire department and get you in trouble. You might want to put it out.” The boys discussed this and then decided that I was probably right and set about extinguishing the fire with gusto. I am not sure how they cooked their hotdogs. Maybe they ate them raw, who knows?

Spending Father’s Day Alone – Again

My husband worked most of the time but he, too, had heard about Mason and been told he was a terrible kid. Consequently, he didn’t like him around.

That changed one Father’s Day when we went with our son to the local theatre to see a family movie. We found some seats and were just settling in when Mason arrived alone, carrying bags of candy, licorice, and a huge bucket of popcorn. He exuberantly insisted that we have some of his goodies, “My Dad gave me $20!” he said as he shared his treats with us. I will never forget my husband’s face in that moment.

More Highs and Lows

Having such a free-wheeling, high-spirited kid in the yard wasn’t always easy. It tests your limits and forces you to face your own prejudices about what is “safe” or “right.” Like the time I was walking back from town and heard yelling from the roof of my house. There were the kids, standing up there and proudly waving like mad! Mason had put his new hammer and nails to good use and hammered pieces of old two by fours up along the side of our house to make a ladder. What can you do? I laughed out loud. It was kind of ingenious, no?

One of the last times I saw Mason was on Hallowe’en in 2001. He came to the door dressed as Osama Bin Laden. The whole town was in an uproar over his costume. I pointed out that Hallowe’en is the night where ghouls, evil spirits, and things that scare us abound. Wouldn’t a terrorist qualify? But it was probably too soon. Yeah, it most definitely was.

And Lose Some

It took me nearly 10 years to win over that town. Of course, that got me in trouble with my ex on more than one occasion. One time I was walking home from the gym and someone came running out of the bar, “Kathy! Get over here!” Well, next thing you know, I was sitting in the middle of a crowd, telling a story, and having a great time when I heard the phone ring behind the bar. I knew who it was before they called me over.

Sigh. I didn’t say I was a great wife….

What Will You Do Now?

Po Bronson sums up some of the things he learned by interviewing people for his book. Here is a sample: “A calling is not something you know, it’s something you grow into, through trials and mistakes…You don’t find your purpose above the neck, you find it below the neck, when you’re transformed by what you have witnessed…Nothing helps like knowing you’re not alone…Things you work the hardest for are the things you will most treasure.”

Now that I am facing another difficult time in my life, I can see how my past experiences have readied me for this moment. I marvel at what I faced and how I managed to overcome adversity time and again. These memories give me the courage to face life again.

That’s probably the biggest advantage to being older when you have to start again. You have something to remind you that you are strong, that you have survived tough times before.

Just don’t get too distracted by the gang at the bar!


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