I didn’t have a whole lot of heroes as a child, and I didn’t realize I had role models until I grew up and looked back.
My mother, for having figured out a way to build a marriage and raise a child and finish school and earn a good income and pull us from outright poverty into a solid middle-class status… all starting at age 17, which is how old she was when she got pregnant and married. (It didn’t occur to me until a few years ago, that the fact that my parents appear consecutively in line at their high school graduation is not because their last names started with “Bo-” and “Bu-” but because, by then, they had already been married, and I was watching the ceremony from the stands.) For bearing so much of the burden of responsibility and effort, to keep the family together and deal with any number of health issues (both within herself and within her household), and never breaking. For so consistently, unconditionally loving her children that even when we are wordlessly irate with her, we know that her intentions – even if misguided – were true and meant to help.
My great-grandmother, for viewing the whole population of the world as a friend. For providing such simple, unquestioned consistency that you didn’t fully realize how important she was until she was gone. For playing the kazoo and drinking Genesee Lite at 9:00 in the morning just because the spirit moved her.
My mother’s mother, for honing her chameleon skills to the point that she appears perfectly natural and true to herself when she is acting like a passive, slightly addled second-fiddle to my grandfather, and when she is trading verbal spars and displaying deep psychological insight when she’s with her grandchildren. For reminding me that family is there for family at the end of the day – no matter how badly they treat you, no matter how abusive they behave or how willfully ignorant their blog comments remarks, if someone shows up on your doorstep or picks up the phone with an honest and immediate need, you do what you can to help.
I didn’t realize I had role models, until I grew up and started raising my kids and running my life and negotiating my marriage; suddenly I was forced to think about how I wanted things to go, and in thinking about it I realized I had some pretty good examples of things to try, right there in my family tree. Of course, I also have some things I’d like to do differently, but part of the magic of these women is that I knew they would still love me and support me even if I chose differently than they did. Even if they didn’t like my choices.
I think that’s the basic difference, between role models and heroes. Role models can slip in under your radar, influencing and supporting in their various ways, and don’t need recognition to be effective. Heroes call for a bit more awareness in the moment; you have to know someone is your hero in order to be able to call them a hero.
And for me, my heroes have, for the most part, been younger than I. The older you get, the more you learn – so your actions are less instinctual and more deliberate, so doing the right thing is almost less impressive to me, because you’ve had lots of time to think and learn and plan for it. Adults behaving badly puts a stronger impression on me than when they behave appropriately, because it seems like it must take some extra effort to overcome all of that socialization and thought and learning and be a putz anyway.
So it’s the children, the young people, the ones who could be forgiven for behaving in selfish, hurtful, thoughtless sorts of ways because why should they know any better? When they rise above and behave in admirable, honorable ways, that’s what I find most impressive.
Like my sister Mary, who has a physical disability – nemaline myopathy, for those feeling a need to rev up their Wikipedia skillz – and has consistently refused to let it be more than a simple aspect of her life. She has never given up, never avoided a challenge, and never – in my hearing, which is what counts, right? = whined or indulged in self-pity. We’ve talked about it before, about whether she regretted her obstacles or wished she’d been born without the disease, and even as young as 10 and 12, she was able to eloquently articulate why she didn’t spend her time wishing and regretting. This was her life, and it was a pretty cool one. She got to do a lot of really fun and interesting and exciting stuff. She had a good brain and could learn about anything she wanted to learn about. She could have adventures and try new things and travel. Who knows what she might miss out on, if she didn’t have this neuromuscular disorder? And once you forget she has it – which takes most people about 4 seconds – you realize that she’s just a fantastic person. She’s a cool kid, with a sharp wit and a fun personality. Kids and dogs love her, but they also seem to magically know that Mary is a bit more delicate and is not to be climbed on or wrestled.
Like my daughter, who runs through life at top speed and has great difficulty managing even the slightest impulse. Her intensity and thoroughness of experience is astonishing to watch; I’m exhausted after an hour of trying to keep up with her, and she bounds out of bed every day, ready for the next thing. She is learning to tap into skills like artistic creativity and storytelling, to find ways to channel some of her enthusiasm, and her fierceness of love and loyalty for family is breathtaking.
Like my son, who is so mellow and Zen as to risk fading into the background sometimes. But he finds ways to join in and make an impression on those around him, without needing to climb up into their face to do so. He is already, at almost-5, an adept politician, able to negotiate with his sister such that they both enjoy themselves without her steamrolling right over him or him getting entirely frustrated at her bossiness. He’s a sturdy, solid little soul, and he takes such joy in life.
You get the idea. These are people that could have, and understandably so, decided to be bitter at the hands life has dealt them – to resent, or throw tantrums, or play the martyr. Instead, they have each just tacitly acknowledged the unique challenges that they face, and figured out ways to squeeze a little extra goodness out of life anyway.
I want to be more like them when I grow up. That’s what a hero is, right?
It’s Madhouse Wednesday again – how did that happen? – and this week’s topic is “Heroes and Role Models.” Some of those listed below have been known to play along, and if you want your name tacked on the list, just let me know…
- Be This Way
- The Three Bucketeers