What makes us who we are? Why do we make the choices we do? Those are questions I ask of my characters and also of myself.
This month, I made choices that were slightly insane, to say the least. In November, both my mother and my husband had scheduled surgeries, I got a new freelance gig, had 13 houseguests for Thanksgiving, and I still went through with my promise to myself to participate in my first NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
The most common question people asked me this month was where I got my drive.
The answer was, surprisingly, not tequila. It was, “Mom.”
As a little girl, I’d watch her beauty as she switched from being a gourmet chef to a construction worker, doing both effortlessly. This woman could run laps around Gloria Steinem. No Barbies for me. She thought they were sexist. Okay, so I didn’t like everything about my mother. But she was, and still is, a one-woman dynamo.
I wanted to be her when I grew up.
When she was pregnant with me, we moved from Connecticut to the Chicago suburbs. As a country girl, the idea of living in a city was Mom’s worst nightmare. Neighbors everywhere, and real friends nowhere. They stared from behind their curtains at her as she defied the logic of most housewives, digging in the dirt, actually playing with her children, and quitting smoking.
One spring day in 1964, the neighborhood Stepford Husbands pulled out their sprinklers. My mom watched in amazement as they carefully synchronized the swish of the flow, all to avoid wetting the sidewalk. That night, my father informed her she needed to get a sprinkler so we’d be “in sync” in our new neighborhood.
Her response, “Yes, Dear.”
The next day, my dad returned from work, driving down the street, witnessing the left, right, left, right, left, right water dance, anxious to see his own yard in unison. As he pulled up, there before him was a loud, circular sprinkler – swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – watering not only our yard, but also the entire sidewalk. Neighbors peeked through the curtains in disgust. My mother opened her curtains wide, smiling.
With one purchase, she made her statement. We didn’t last the year.
After Illinois, we moved to the country in Upstate, NY. Mom was in heaven. We bought a run down 200-yr-old house on 150 acres. No sprinklers and not a neighbor in site. She didn’t even put up curtains.
We let dandelions grow freely. Mom celebrated the yellow, multiplying flowers and had the four of us barefoot with buckets picking dandelions for her to make dandelion wine. When she wasn’t making wine, sewing dresses or having weekly barbecues, she was wielding tools and fixing the old house.
My childhood home was always full of construction workers. There was one in particular I remember – Jules, the excavator. Maybe it was because he reeked of dirt and drove a really cool bulldozer, or perhaps it was because he dug the hole that spewed water, creating a mud puddle that would later be our pond. But most likely, it was because he came in every day and had an Irish coffee. I marveled at the smell of the whiskey on his breath and how his face glowed a rosy color. His laugh was infectious. I was all of five, but he left a lasting impression.
With piles of dirt covering our yard, Jules took ill and needed a few days off. My mother watched the empty bulldozer from her kitchen window, tapping her foot, anxious to see it moving again. I remember the heat of that summer day. My mom was in a bikini – I will say, she was nearing 40 with a smokin’ hot body. Perhaps that’s why the contractors loved working for her.
Itching to see progress of any kind, she jumped up on the roof of the porch and ripped down boards in between swatting flies. Every once in a while, she’d look over at that still bulldozer taunting her from the distance.
I noticed a look in her eyes as she glared the beast down, like they were having a telepathic conversation of double-dog dare. A little gleam came to her face. She jumped off the porch roof and marched over to the dinosaur.
My petite mother, 5 foot 2, 100 pounds soaking wet, with rock hard abs (not something in vogue in 1968) stood next to the intimidating yellow monster and grabbed hold, pulling herself into the seat. I was in awe.
She turned the key. Vroom. I think she was more shocked than I when she pulled the lever and the monster moved. It didn’t take her long before she was a pro.
What I remember most is the look of satisfaction she sported at the end of that day. She had conquered the machine and moved mountains of soil, despite being… a woman. And a woman she was, with a unique combination of grace, beauty, charm and strength. She set the bar high for me.
For the next five days, she owned that sucker.
When Jules came back and saw what she accomplished, he stood speechless for at least five minutes. I held my breath and waited for him to scream at her for touching his baby. But, he didn’t. He slowly smiled and admired her work. The yard looked fabulous.
Finally, Jules mumbled, “You wanna come work for me?” When she got done laughing, albeit with great pride, she politely turned him down… all while pouring him a double shot of whiskey in his coffee.
I knew right then I wanted to be her when I grew up.
Who influenced you and the choices you make? Was it a teacher, a friend, a parent, or a complete stranger? Think back and honor that person in the comments below.
If you’re a writer, consider who had the most impact on your characters. It might spark some fresh ideas.
By the way, when I finished my NaNoWriMo challenge in 19 days, I had the same expression on my face as my mother. NaNo wasn’t a bulldozer, but I moved a mountain of words. It felt fantastic.