From an ordinary life comes extraordinary lessons
I was driving to a memorial service for a friend’s mother in Central Oregon when I pondered what I might share if appropriate.
What do you say about an 85-year-old woman, Ruth Boubel, whose son, Tom, has been a friend of mine for nearly 50 years?
A woman who seemed to symbolize what I call the “Wonder Years Moms,” the kind reflected by that TV sitcom about family life in the 1960s and early ’70s.
A woman whose generational ilk is leaving us quietly, like the soft shutting of an interior door.
If their World War II husbands never pined for the spotlight, they nonetheless have enjoyed a last-minute — and well-deserved — salute of respect, beginning with Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” in 1998, and continuing through Honor Flights to Washington, D.C.
I’ve been on such a flight. In every airport through which the veterans walk — or are wheeled — standing ovations spontaneously erupt.
But where is the applause for their female counterparts?
They are “The Forgotten Generation,” women who experienced war from a different perspective but faced it nevertheless: sometimes, in telegrams that began “regrets to inform you.” Sometimes in bringing up children alone. Sometimes in standing by men who came home from Europe or the Pacific inalterably changed.
They were not the force behind grand social or political change.
They did not — in some ways could not —substantially influence a business world dominated by the gray flannel suit.
They were not the force behind “self-this” and “self-that” (insert “actualization, esteem, entitlement,” etc.) as were their me-oriented offspring. Indeed, their lives were so routinely lived in the shadows of others that newspapers referred to them by their husband’s name, as in “Mrs. Bill Smith.”
But The Wonder Years Moms — and I have one myself — deserve better.
Their contributions have been like photosynthesis, a process that doesn’t trigger standing ovations but nonetheless colors the world grandly.
These were the mothers who sat in our classroom seats at elementary school visitation night, came to our ball games while our fathers worked and let us stay up and watch Sputnik from the middle of the cul-de-sac.
These women have been a quiet force, a whisper not a shout, an inspiration manifested by an undying faith in their children, hope in things greater than themselves and other-oriented hearts.
All of which, as I drove along, made me think these women were like the Three Sisters mountains I saw through an autumn haze, originally, known as Faith (the North), Hope (the Middle) and Charity (the South). Beautiful but not showy. Elegant but chiseled with the grit of time. And seemingly content to watch quietly from afar.
They were the women Garrison Keillor had in mind in his “Letter to Jim” story, the one about the laid-off college professor who is considering having an affair. As he waits outside his house for a ride to a conference with his intended partner for the liaison — as he awaits for something he believes will be extraordinary — he is suddenly humbled by the wonder of the ordinary.
“What I saw was a street full of houses where men and women lived with their children. They fixed dinners there, did laundry, read books, watched TV, listened to radio, cared for their pets, went to church, rooted for the home team, wrote to their friends and relatives, bought whatever the Girls Scouts and Boys Scouts sold them and lived a life that to me has always seemed decent and loving and honorable.”
That’s it, exactly. That’s The Wonder Years Moms, few of whom I saw after I arrived at the service because most are no longer with us.
But here’s what I did see: a church full of 200 people, far more than I expected, suggesting our worth is not dependent on style, but substance.
And here’s the lesson that was reinforced for me: In a world where influence now explodes with the power of a sound bite or the speed of a tweet, never doubt the steady impact of a well-lived, other-oriented life. Consistency over time.
In a delicious irony, the lesson was offered at the service not from the old school baby boomer, me — there was no open-mike opportunity — but from Ruth’s 29-year-old granddaughter, Kelly Boubel Shriver, a graduate of Princeton Seminary with an emphasis on women’s studies. The pastor of Peoples Presbyterian Church in Miland, Mich. As her homily unfolded, I realized she was saying what I would have said, only far more eloquently. And far more personally — with a spiritual twist.
“With Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is found in the ordinary,” Shriver said. “Bread and wine from the kitchen counter, fair wages for the worker, caring for your neighbor.”
That, she said, was Ruth.
“In remembering and giving thanks for the life of my Grandma Ruth, I’m drawn back, again and again, to the ordinary and the everyday, and I really think she lived a good life, a life that was in so many ways reflective of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now.”
Shriver chose the Book of Ruth from which to honor her grandmother Ruth. She talked of how the biblical Ruth does not abandon her family in the wake of tragedy.
“She refuses to leave,” said Shriver. “Instead, (she) adopts her daughters-in-law as family. It’s a tremendously powerful and beautiful example of what it means to choose to be family, to make a commitment and follow through, in moments of loss and hardship, and, in the case of Ruth, extreme poverty.
“Our Ruth was a living example of what it means to choose your family, and to love and serve the people you are with, no matter what.”
All of which might grate against my own generation, the Me Generation, the if-it-feels-good-do-it generation for which the idea of choosing to “serve the people you are with” has not always been a default format.
“I know that to some people, the life of a homemaker might seem trivial,” Shriver said. “But it is not. The details of the everyday, Jesus reminds us, are where the kingdom of heaven is to be found. In the clean towels, the flannel sheets, the bread passed around the table.”
In the stuff that nobody ever thinks about as important, until you look back at a life and realize that the seemingly ordinary was actually quite extraordinary.