I grew up thinking you had to hate what you did for a living.
That single belief of my childhood probably explains more about who I am and how I became a writer than anything else I could tell you.
My first eighteen years were spent in a small Ohio town that most people passed through on their way to somewhere else. It’s called Ashtabula. You Bob Dylan fans may recall it was his creative reach for a rhyme to “Honolulu” in his song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
There are so many other towns just like Ashtabula all over the country. These towns are anonymous places where most of America does its living and dying. It’s funny, really, how much all of us, from big-city folks to little-town people, resemble one another at the end of the day. In my town we didn’t have Central Park or Hollywood Boulevard, but we did have the lady down the street leave her husband for her sister’s husband, and don’t even try telling me that isn’t the stuff of made-for-TV movies. Hubert Humphrey even visited our town once. Dad shook his hand and got him on a home movie, which we always watched right before the scene of me putting my doll in the toilet.
Without meaning to, my father taught me early that work was something you just had to put up with so you could enjoy the few hours you had left in any day, any life. He was one of those workers who showered at the end of the day, after his shift at the plant was done. For thirty-six years he worked for the local utility plant, and for thirty-six years he despised his job and what he was sure it said about him as a human being.
Most nights, Mom and all four of us kids would join Dad at the dinner table and, likely as not, he would tell another story from his day on the job. He included funny tales about coworkers and pleas for a different Hostess pie in his lunch pail, but mostly he talked about abusive supervisors and backbreaking work in temperatures that easily topped 100 degrees in the summer. He offered up his stories as mounting evidence of just how much he didn’t matter.
“Do you know what that bastard did to me today?” he’d say, not waiting for an answer before describing yet again how he was worse than invisible to the man ordering him around day in and day out.
“You kids are going to college,” he’d say, over and over. “You kids are going to be somebody.”
It was an order.
I am his oldest child, and over the years it grew harder and harder to watch that hurt masquerading as rage getting such a choke hold on my father’s view of himself and his life. He was my dad, the man I most respected and feared. He filled up our house in that way that ferocious men do, but he was nobody out there, in that hulking factory where he spent the bulk of his days and too many overtime nights.
I used to envy the bankers’ kids, the lawyers’ and doctors’ kids, even the kids whose dads were just insurance salesmen. I didn’t envy their fathers’ professions, just their access. Their fathers had offices their children could visit, secretaries and receptionists who would look up at them from tidy desks and say, “Your dad’s on the phone, honey. Have a seat until he waves you in.”
My dad worked in a place we could only see from the shores of Lake Erie. Sometimes, my mother would take us to a small patch of beach called Lake Shore Park. Gathering her chicks around her, she’d point to the smokestacks puffing huge gray clouds into the sky several miles away.
“Your daddy’s over there,” she’d yell. “Wave real hard and maybe he’ll see us.”
There we were, four skinny kids with the same bony knees, flapping and yelling, “Hi, Daddy!” as if he could actually hear us over the roar of the plant. One of those times, when I was about ten, I looked back at my mother as we hooted and hollered and saw that she wasn’t waving anymore. She just stood there, staring at those ugly smokestacks with a face I’d never seen her wear before. Through her eyes, I had just seen the enemy.
I never waved at the plant again.
Whenever my father talked about work at the dinner table, my mother would quietly listen, but the look on her face told me all I needed to know about what she was really thinking. Here was her big, burly husband, the only man she would ever love, and, oh, how she loved him, being mistreated in ways she would never visit on a dog. That’s a hard thing for a woman who loves her man, and I still wince at the memory of my tiny mother trying to lift up her fallen giant.
“They don’t know you like I know you,” she’d say, passing him a second helping of mashed potatoes, maybe asking if he’d like some canned peaches for dessert. I’m sure that, at such moments, there must have been an occasional look of tenderness between them, but I only remember my father staring straight ahead, his eyes narrowed in disbelief that this was his life.
At the beginning of my senior year, my high school guidance counselor, Joe Petro, asked me what I wanted to study in college. I’d never given it much thought, since all I really knew about college was what my parents told me: I had to go for four years, and I’d better have a job at the end.
“Well,” I said, “I thought I’d be a social worker.”
He frowned, shook his head. “I know you, Connie. You’ll burn out.”
He looked down at my test scores and tapped his finger on the page. “You’re good in English, and your writing scores are great. Have you ever thought of going into journalism?”
He looked at my blank face and smiled.
“You’re going to be working for a long time,” he said. “You’d better pick something you really like to do.”
Just like that, life happens: a sudden wide-awake flash changes, not just what you are, but who you are. Until that moment in Mr. Petro’s dingy office, it had never occurred to me that I could love what I do for a living. In an instant, there it was: my brand-new life.
Before I became a columnist, I was a reporter for more than twenty years. It was a career dug in the rich soil of other people’s lives, and that is fertile ground. Like many journalists, I am often asked how I get people to open up and talk so much, as if we keep some sort of magic dust in our pockets that we can scoop out and sprinkle around.
Truth be told, I spend a lot of time just paying attention. There are few people, indeed, who feel really heard on a regular basis. Who among us have enough people in our lives who hang on our every word, who know how life happened for us, and how it happens still? Good journalists ask great questions, but the best stories come about only when we shut up and listen. I haven’t met a person who doesn’t have at least one good tale, and if I leave an interview without hearing it, I always feel the blame is mine. Keeps the standard high.
All these years later, I still can’t quite believe I get paid to do this for a living. I left behind my working-class life, but its roots run long and deep, and they keep me tethered to values that steer my every step. While we’re clearly a country deeply divided, I find myself constantly stumbling onto common ground.
You might spot someone you know in the stories here. Maybe you’ll even find a glimpse of yourself. Yes, yes, I know, each of us is unique, but life happens in ways that bind us like Gorilla Glue. There’s something universally comforting in the folds of a worn denim shirt or a house that promises to hold on to our memories no matter how far we move. Maybe you, too, have been stopped dead in your tracks by a sign that assures us there’s something bigger at work than our own stubborn will.
No matter where we live, we all have those moments when a sudden reminder of life’s brevity changes us, at least for a little while. In that quiet moment of surrender, life happens.
THIS FOUR-LETTER WORD IS A MALE LAND MINE
Men, I’m going to share with you a little tip that could change your life.
Women hate the f-word.
We especially hate when you use it, because your timing couldn’t be worse if you were the mistress making a toast at her boyfriend’s wedding.
At the precise moment when we are at our most vulnerable, our most needy, anxiously standing before you and hanging on your every word, you fling the f-word at us like a hunk of day-old hash and then wonder why we’re reaching for the nearest steak knife.
“What?” you always say. “What did I do? What did I say?”
Learn from this story:
One of my friends walked over to my desk recently with his head hanging lower than the tail of a freshly neutered hound dog. Naturally, I was concerned.
“Now what did you do?”
He shook his head, mumbled his wife’s name. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
“What did you do?”
He threw his hands up in disgust. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Again, I ask you, what did you do?”
He sighed, avoided eye contact. (A dead giveaway.)
“Okay,” he said. “I’m standing in the kitchen minding my own business, cookin’ a little oatmeal, drinkin’ a little coffee, when she waltzes in wearing some new outfit and says, ‘How do I look?’ ”
He shrugged his shoulders. “So, I said, ‘You—’ ”
“ ‘Look—’ ”
No, no, no.
“ ‘Fine.’ ”
There it is: the dreaded f-word.
“I can’t help you,” I told him. “If you had insulted her mom, maybe. If you had forgotten her birthday, perhaps. But you said she looks fine. There’s nothing to be done now.”
How does this happen? Most men I know can launch into an hour-long lecture on everything from how much air belongs in my tires to the precise wattage of lightbulb that should be screwed into every socket in my house. These same men turn into monosyllabic goofballs when asked to comment on the appearance of the woman they supposedly love.
Fine? We look fine?
When we ask, “How do I look?” we want a response rivaling the great ardor of your brothers across the sea. We want the passion of Italy, the romance of France, the fervor of Greece.
You give us Switzerland.
When you say, “You look fine,” and perform that little palms-up flip, our creative minds kick into overdrive. We hear:
“I’ve seen Wide World of Bowling highlights more exciting than you in that dress.”
“(Yawn.) I’m sorry, were you talking to me?”
“Whoa, when did the back-fat thing happen?”
None of these will ever land you on the right side of the heart-shaped tub.
One of my male friends tells me, “Look, when we say ‘fine,’ all we mean is, ‘We’re running late, get the keys, let’s go.’ ”
It is to laugh.
That wouldn’t explain those grunts from the Bimini BarcaLounger during Sunday football games, would it? Nor does it shed any light on why you say it right before we meet your mother or head into the gym for your high school reunion populated with twenty of your old girlfriends.
(Neither of these happened to me, but I did bear witness to these unfortunate moments and both times “you look fine” made for one very long night for men named George. I’m not saying you Georges of the world are more likely to commit the crime, but you do seem to get less benefit of the doubt than men named Preston, say, or Kip.)
Now, I know the next question: Well, if you don’t like the f-word, what should we say?
So glad you asked.
You are hereby encouraged to use the m-f word.
Here’s how it works:
She says, “How do I look?”
You say, “You look mighty fine.”
My work is done.
A GIFT THAT MOM WOULD HAVE LOVED
For some years now, I have meant to frame a square little black-and-white photo of my mother.
It rests against another framed photo by my bed, its sides slowly curling toward an eventual union. She is peering playfully around the corner at the top of a stairway, her right leg extended to show off a little calf under the poufy skirt. Her right arm stretches straight out, too, and she is holding her high-heeled party shoes in midair, a striking rebuff to the scruffy slippers on her feet.
It was 1958, and she was the twenty-one-year-old mother of one-year-old me. She is flirting with the man behind the camera—her husband, my father. He, too, was twenty-one.
This is my favorite photo of my mother, even though it sometimes makes me sad, especially in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. I flick on the light, and there she is. It is a perfect snapshot of where she came from and where she hoped to go, a tidy composition hiding a messy start.
On the night of this photo, I imagine my parents thinking that maybe everything was going to be all right. You don’t know from looking at the smile on my mother’s seamless face that their young marriage began with a doctor’s surprising news and an elopement in the middle of the night across state lines. You don’t know that the stairway doesn’t belong to them, but to the great-aunt who kindly took them in. And you don’t know that the girl in the picture hoped to be a nurse one day but never was.
All you know from that picture is what she wrote in her own loopy backhand on the back: “Chuck and I had just got home from Ma Schultz’s—Sun. eve.”
My mother always said her life was a good one. She raised four kids, loved four grandchildren, and told me a week before she died that she still got butterflies when my father walked into the room. But over the years, she gave up on her bigger self, the one who was going to go to night school to get a degree.
I still remember the night she surrendered. I was in high school when she enrolled in a typing class. She was so flustered after the first session that she drove up an exit ramp to the freeway.
“That’s it,” she told me later that night, her hands trembling as she wiped away tears. “I’m just not good enough.” And that was that. She worked as a nurse’s aide the rest of her life, in a hospital and then later for a hospice. She was only sixty-two when she died. More than eight hundred people attended her wake.
Nearly six years later, my father is slowly sifting through the cards and letters, the photos and Post-it notes that chronicle my mother’s daily life. A recent batch he mailed to me included a folded, handwritten list that began, “I AM SOMEBODY!”
The list continues: “I AM A HUMAN BEING . . . I AM AN IMPORTANT PERSON . . . GOD LOVES ME . . . I AM SOMEBODY!”
I imagine her tucking this into her purse, or slipping it into her Bible, someplace where she could easily find it and pull it out as a reminder of something we obviously failed to make clear. I stared at the list in my hand, then looked over at that photo of her, the one where she seems so full of her young and capable self.
“How?” I wondered aloud, shaking the list at her. “How could you not have known this?”
Sunday is Mother’s Day. I could rattle off a whole list of the gifts I bought her, the cards I mailed. But I can’t describe a single time when I sat my mother down on that special day and asked her even one question about her life. She would have loved that, and by showing an interest in her life I would have learned so much about my own.
A month after my mom died, my daughter asked me a question about my childhood while I was driving.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask Grandma.”
My daughter stared at me as I slowed the car for a moment and sucked in air.
“Mom?” she said.
Only after my mother was gone did I realize how much of me she held captive in her memories. Now, whole parts of me are lost to her for good.
My mom was somebody.
Yes, she was.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Life Happens by Connie Schultz. Copyright © 2006 by Connie Schultz. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.