We Are All Survivors

Life is full of surprises. In fact, something so surprising happened to me the other day that I have to seriously reconsider how I perceive myself. My friend, Randy, always makes me laugh, but yesterday he almost made me cry. Randy’s wife, Tricia, had been sick with the usual winter “epizoodi” (my mother’s made-up word for flu, my made up spelling), so Michael and I stopped by their house to drop off some soup and wine for Tricia. Wine always makes Tricia feel better. However, it didn’t seem appropriate to show up with a bottle of alcohol for a sick person, so I included some soup in order to not appear too gauche, not that Tricia would have cared. Randy was in an upbeat mood because he was taking orders for Girl Scout cookies on behalf of his granddaughter.

“How can you do that?” I said, “She lives on the other side of the country.”

“Oh, check this out,” he said, going over to his computer. Apparently the Girl Scouts have entered the age of Internet sales. He showed me a spreadsheet on his computer screen that his granddaughter had sent him. “They don’t even have to knock on doors anymore. By the way, Michael told me the other day that you would want thin mints and tagalongs, so I put you down for two boxes of each.

“What are tagalongs?” I asked. “Aren’t those coconut?”

“No,” he said, “they’re peanut butter.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think tagalongs are coconut. I want peanut butter.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure they’re peanut butter,” he said in a worried voice as he squinted at the computer screen.

I was pretty sure tag-alongs were coconut. However, I could see that Randy was getting flustered. Selling Girl Scout cookies with the aid of a spreadsheet would require a certain level of attention to detail. Randy is an artist. The only details he’s interested in are the ones pertaining to whatever painting is on the easel in front of him. I decided to let it go.

“Okay,” I said, “leave the tagalongs alone. If they turn out to be coconut, I’ll put them in the freezer. I’ll give them to my sister-in-law for her birthday.”

He laughed with relief and said, “You know, I told Tricia yesterday that you are the most interesting person I know.”

I was stunned. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No, really, you are,” he said.

I could only look at him. Finally, I said, “Well, I have never, ever thought of myself as interesting.” I could feel my face getting hot. I started wringing my hands.

He said, “I’ve met a lot of people (he worked in the film industry, so I know he met some real interesting people), and in my art class, some of them are pretty interesting, but not as interesting as you.”

“Why do you think I’m interesting?” I asked, staring into his smiling face. I thought he must have me confused with someone else.

“Because of your background, your sense of humor, your writing,” he said.

I knew better than to ask him what he meant by “background.” Randy is a pro at embellishment. He would have told me a fantastical story in which I would not even recognize myself, and yet he would totally believe his own story. The problem is I would not believe it.

Finally, I stopped wringing my hands and said, “Randy, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” I hugged him and then scurried off to keep from crying.

***

My conversation with Randy (about me being interesting, not the Girl Scout Cookies) ignited a spark within me. It is possible he’s on to something. I have been struggling with an idea for my next writing project. I’m stuck because I feel like I have run out of interesting things to write about. In other words, do I have anything relevant to say? My life is not that interesting, I don’t care what Randy says. I write creative non-fiction essays. I call my writing style “memoir light.” My essays are humorous, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes self-deprecating, light fare — nothing about suffering, adventure, or survival. But I would like to change that. I decided I need to revisit my past to see if there is something I’ve overlooked or an experience that I’ve subconsciously (or consciously, for that matter) swept under the rug. This might require some excavation. Randy obviously sees something in me that I don’t.

***

I turned to my writer’s group for help. I wrote a synopsis of some events in my life, and asked them for their opinions on whether they were worth writing about, whether they were relevant. They were blunt. Basically, their response was something like, “What’s your problem? All of those things would be relevant to someone.” Well, okay — but…

I think readers of memoir, in general, expect drama. Take Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Now that’s drama; or Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. Major drama. Nothing about my life can compete with the tumultuous and painful childhoods they survived. My parents weren’t alcoholics or drug addicts, they didn’t get divorced, and I myself have never been a drunk or an addict. I was not abused as a child, not mentally, physically or sexually. I am not a movie star who went from living in a trailer park, to living out of her car, to Academy award winner. I’m also not a talented song-writer whose life was full of strife, yet so full of amazing successes, that a Broadway musical was made about her. I have not survived a trek to the South Pole, alone, in sub-zero temperatures, wearing a prosthetic leg. I’m not a prisoner of war survivor, Holocaust survivor, lost at sea survivor, Boston Marathon terrorist survivor. I’m not a survivor of anything.

Even so, I did not have a privileged childhood or a life without problems — in fact, quite the opposite. My father was a tenant farmer — he didn’t even own the land he loved so much. We were pretty close to the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain. Yet, miraculously, my parents scraped together enough money to send me to one year of business school in Minneapolis. Their struggle was real. The struggle was real for me too. I was so homesick, and the big city scared me. Plus, I had to interact with lots of people I didn’t know, something my sheltered country life had not prepared me for. After two weeks, I called my mother and asked if I could come home. The answer was “absolutely not!”, even though it would have saved my parents a boatload of money. Mom says she still doesn’t know how they managed to pull it off. But thanks to whatever sacrifices they made, that one year of business school was my ticket to gainful employment. Right after graduation, I landed my first full-time job as a stenographer at AT&T.

And what, exactly, is a stenographer? Well. Many years ago, a stenographer was a woman (always a woman, in my experience) whose job it was to listen to an executive (almost always a man) dictate a business letter, and write down everything he said. That would have been nearly impossible if I had not honed my shorthand skills in business school. And what, exactly, is shorthand? In a nutshell, symbols that represent words. Here’s how it went: the executive sat behind his expansive desk in his big fancy chair, usually with his feet propped up, gazing out the window at the city skyline, while he talked his way through a letter. While he talked, he cleared his throat, paused for a sip of coffee, answered his phone, blew his nose, clipped his fingernails, and cleared his throat some more. He usually lost his train of thought. Lucky for him, I was able to prompt him and get him back on track. When he finished dictating, I went back to my desk and typed the letter on a typewriter (if you’re too young to know what a typewriter is, you will have to research it yourself). I was good at it. I was accurate. I was fast with that ballpoint pen. I got every word. Plus, I could type really fast — one hundred words per minute. I was the star of the “steno pool.”

My skill with the pen and the typewriter set me on a path to steady, if not richly rewarding, employment. My grammar skills were also useful. After a while, those executives figured out I could compose a business letter as well as they could and, before I knew it, I was writing their letters for them. Eventually, my business writing skills, my attention to detail, and my Midwest work ethic got noticed and I started on an upward path to various managerial positions, the last of which was a human resource manager at AT&T… until the day, years later, when my job was outsourced. There I was, standing in the unemployment line at the age of forty-nine. By then, stenography had been extinct for twenty years.

Forty-nine is not a good age to be unemployed in the best of times. The 1990s were not the worst of times (I’d say The Great Depression was the worst), but they were the beginning of the era of corporate outsourcing. Managers like me, without a college degree, were the first employees to be handed a pink slip. We were the most vulnerable, even though we had proven ourselves to be competent enough to work our way up from the bottom rung of the corporate ladder to, at least, somewhere in the middle. Employees with college diplomas were not necessarily saved from the jaws of corporate greed either. But their degrees did pave the way for a better chance at re-employment. Those of us without degrees were in trouble. We rarely found new jobs as lucrative as our old ones. Plus, by then we were considered old, unable to add value to the workplace, incapable of navigating the changing times in corporate America. It was the young, college-educated job-seekers who were valued, even though they had little or no experience. Not much has changed.

That was a difficult time, but I made it through because, one) I had a husband who still had a job, two) I was eligible for unemployment benefits, and three) and this is huge — AT&T paid out my pension and my 401k, and gave me a year’s severance pay. All things considered, I had landed in a safety net of gigantic proportions. I was one of the lucky ones. Now I could go to college. Michael and I moved a lot (more on that later), but I went to college everywhere we lived. I won’t lie, I was intimidated. But college turned out to be a blast. Interacting with people half my age was so entertaining that each day felt like an episode of a soap opera. I couldn’t wait for the next installment. In speech class, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who felt intimidated. For all their bravado, most of my classmates were as nervous as children lined up for their flu shots. For once, I had an edge. My years of business experience had taught me how to prepare a presentation, and then deliver it like I knew what I was talking about, even though I shook like an earthquake inside.

It was during that time that my passage through menopause began. Unlike a spiritual pilgrimage to, say Mecca, or a challenging twelve hundred mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, this journey provided no reward — only survival. My travel down that lonesome road was so difficult that suicide crossed my mind. I didn’t know enough about menopause to understand that raging hormones were affecting my brain. Doctors were no help. Gynecologists were mostly men, so what did they know about a woman’s brain? I do not mean to disparage the doctors I consulted back then. It probably wasn’t their fault. It was a long time ago. Maybe medical school didn’t teach them about the possible link between depression and menopause.

When I was a teenager, menopause was something people joked about, when they talked about it at all. Stories about hot flashes had us screaming with laughter. I didn’t know any better. I remember Mom saying two things about menopause: One, “I just sailed right through menopause.” Two, “Aunt Mattie nearly went crazy (going through menopause).” Thanks, Mom. That was helpful. I think she was delusional, though, about her little breeze through menopause. I distinctly remember that she sometimes went off the rails for no apparent reason. Now I realize she suffered from mood swings. Maybe she realized it too, but didn’t want to talk about it. Who would she tell, anyway? Not me. It wasn’t until I ricocheted my own way through that dark tunnel that I realized what she might have been experiencing.

***

Long before all of that, my first marriage was a total disaster. I was naïve. I wonder if any woman today would actually believe, as I did, that her fiancé would change after they were married. No surprise, mine didn’t. He was a gambler to the very end of our marriage, which was not a long one. I was luckier in my second marriage, except for one aspect — my husband is a former Marine with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We’ve been married forty-three years. For about thirty of those years, I just thought he was eccentric. I didn’t know he was sick. For that matter, neither did he. He told me that he felt like he was messed up, but he didn’t know why.

Finally, after years of job hopping (he thought all of his bosses were morons) and moving from city to city, an episode at work lit the fire that would lead to his diagnosis. As a result, he lost his job. Fortunately, he got help. Even so, it was difficult for him to accept that the demons chasing him were the ones that had followed him home from Viet Nam. The hardest part for me was seeing him suffer, and not know how to help. There is no guide book for the spouses of soldiers (active or former) who suffer from PTSD, although there needs to be. We continue to live with the long-term effects of that wildfire, but our lives have smoothed out, our marriage survived, and we still love each other.

I never did finish college. After I went back to work, it grew harder and harder to work full time and go to college at night. It was exhausting and, frankly, at my age I didn’t see the point. Online college courses were still in the future. I have fond memories of my college days, even though I was old enough to be the mother of most of my classmates. The last decade of my working life was spent doing jobs that I was over-qualified for. But I swallowed my pride, showed up, smiled, and put my Midwest work ethic to good use. At that point, I was more concerned with retirement planning than with dwelling on the downhill turn my career had taken. Of course, I harbored a grudge against AT&T for years — still do, for that matter.

***

After sharing some of these life experiences with the members of my writer’s group, they provided me with thoughtful feedback. They helped me to realize that my stories are relevant. Jennifer said that people are always searching the Internet for revelations to life’s eternal mysteries. People want answers. As human beings, we want to know we are not alone in our anguish, sorrow, grief, loneliness, ignorance, and experiences, regardless of the magnitude. We take courage in knowing that, whatever wrong turn our lives might take, someone else has survived the same thing. Elizabeth said, for instance, that a lot of marriages do not survive the trauma of PTSD, and that is something relevant to many people. Chela, who has a knack for cutting to the chase, summed things up. She said, “Life is hard. We are all survivors of life.”

***

Now, about those Girl Scout cookies — Randy was right. Tagalongs are peanut butter (I Googled it). Samoas are coconut. I won’t need to freeze any of my Girl Scout cookies after all. I owe Randy an apology for not having faith in his cookie expertise, and for doubting his ability to navigate a spreadsheet. I also need to thank him for helping me fight my way out of that sticky, tangled web of self-doubt, and to look at my life with new interest and objectivity. What I have discovered is a person with interesting experiences to share after all. Thank you, Randy.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sharyn Ellison

Sharyn Ellison

48 Followers

Sharyn wrote her first story at the age of nine on a roll of paper towels which, for good reason, remains unpublished. She lives in Savannah, Georgia.