In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot. I never knew what to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.” At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.
What was she asking, I wondered. Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties? I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.
But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it. I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it. And I find myself doing the same. What has my life meant? At the finish line, will I be able to say I have “fought the good fight” ? Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose? The olympic swimmer, the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy; they had a calling, didn’t they? A custom made life-suit, into which they fit perfectly. Their one true path. Is there one for me?
In my early life, I was sure of it. My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring. Unlike my mother’s. Especially, not like my mother’s.
Mind you, my mother was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener. She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.
But. She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon) or held public office. For most of her life she lived in the same community. To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane, aimless, pointless even. Not mine, I vowed. I would set goals for myself and go about achieving them. Simple as that.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. My path took unexpected twists and turns. It didn’t lead steadily to a noble destination, but instead wound through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders. I ran, I stumbled, I climbed, I tripped, I fell and I recovered, with varying degrees of grace.
Admittedly, on its surface, my life looks radically different from that of my mother. I left home at an early age, attended universities in distant states, managed a demanding career, travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work. But at its core, like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff; education, career, marriage, children, retirement. And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.
And my path has led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp. As it did my mother.
It’s tempting to fall for the “one true thing” pitch. The idea that we are entitled to the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing. And perhaps it is true for some. But my life didn’t come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path. I wasn’t always sure of my choices, and they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.
If I could answer my mother now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling. Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination. And at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought, but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.