Here’s the truth about life: most people, regardless of how many selfies they take or how many facebook pages they have or how they try to “brand” themselves, are quite ordinary. Ordinary people don’t discover the cure for cancer or win the Nobel Prize or climb Mr. Everest— nor do they aspire to. Ordinary people just go about their days putting one foot in front of the other, doing what has to be done, accepting whatever comes their way and trying to deal with it the best way they know how. They are not “go-getters.” Their motivation is simple: they just want a decent life for themselves and their families. Beyond that, ordinary people don’t see why they should be any different from anybody else.
Does this characterization sound familiar to you? Do you recognize this description in people you know, among your friends and neighbors? Are they your parents or your grandparents, yourself? Are they Midwesterners or Southerners, blue collar workers or immigrants? Probably not “coastal elites,”right?
Well, wrong. Ordinary people are everywhere, in all walks of life, in all economic strata, in every geographic region and in every demographic. Ordinary people are, well, ordinary. They have dreams, sure; they want good health and a good education, they want to better themselves from wherever they start, they want to contribute, and they want to feel valued and recognized, but they never presume to exceptionalism. Indeed, when and if an exceptional cosmic accident happens to them —an unexpected award or an act of heroism or a Powerball win, for example — ordinary people are deferential, if not down right embarrassed by the sudden limelight and attention.They will always maintain that they were just “doing what they were supposed to do.”
In these days of self-promotion and facebook me-first, this depiction of the unsung ordinary is hardly descriptive of young millenials, or even of the aging baby-boomers at the other end of the generational spectrum who were, after all, the originators of the “here we are, look at us” attitude. They (we) were going to change the world and do great things, and indeed, they (we) did become the best-educated, most affluent, most catered-to, and, for better or worse, most influential generation in history. But make no mistake, most of us were also, in fact, “ordinary,” even though we didn’t act like it, didn’t think we were, and didn’t want to be. Even now, in our aging sixth and seventh decades, humility is not a hallmark of this generation.
Ironically though, we are the children of the quintessential “ordinary people.” Our parents, the World War II generation, were the ones who epitomized the values of hard work, determination, duty, gratitude. Ever modest about their own achievements, their dreams of more were never for themselves, but for their children. For us. They were not presumptuous; they were perseverant. They did great things on a small scale. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
My Mother died this week at the age of 95. In retrospect, she was what many might call a “trail blazer” for her era, though she would have said that she simply did what she had to do. Widowed at a young age in the 1950s, she entered a management training program at the local J. C. Penney store and ultimately became a Personnel Manager, one of the first women in management for that company in the state and more or less the only professional working woman, not to mention single working mother, in our town. She took care of her own aging mother while she worked and raised me, and she still managed to have a personal life with a circle of friends and active community service. Long before there was a “women’s movement,” my mother was a pioneer and a role model, not because of any conscious activism, but because of a steadfast, day-to-day commitment to doing what she was “supposed to do.”
My Mother was one of those “ordinary people,” but extraordinary in her ordinariness. She built a life for us, and created a foundation of confidence for me that made me believe I could do anything, conquer anything, be anything. Her love for me was complete and unconditional. She believed I was exceptional and she always said that I was her “greatest accomplishment.” That used to make me anxious and sad when I was a younger woman because I thought investing all one’s hopes and dreams in a child was such a limited, “ordinary” thing for a woman to do. But then I became a mother myself and now I understand: she was just being the best mother she could possibly be.
And that is anything but ordinary.
Such a powerful piece. I hope that crafting this tribute to your mom and all those “ordinary” people who inhabit (and enrich) the real world soothes your heart. I always admire the way that each essay infuses memories of the past with insight into contemporary life.
Thank you for your kind words, Patricia. I guess I live by (write by) that old maxim: “Those who don’t remember the past…”