Mom tried to raise us normal. I know that much for sure, because I asked her once.
“You tried to raise us normal, didn’t you?”
“Yep,” she replied, shaking her head.
And because I never could suppress my curiosity, I asked, “Why do you think that didn’t work out?”
She let out a deep sigh and said, “I married your father.”
I could tell you stories about my parents. They would fill a big book. All the things they’ve learned, all the things I’ve learned watching them learn. They have not been perfect, but they have been good.
If you looked at the raw materials the Humphries family was built from, our extended family, our culture, the place where we’ve spent most of our lives, you could easily have assumed we’d turn out like any other conservative, evangelical Texans, and, had things been a lot different, we would no doubt have become just that.
But we didn’t, and as much as I’d like to point to my dad as the source, because, let me tell you, having Bill Humphries as a father certainly guaranteed an atypical upbringing, the fact is it wasn’t entirely up to him. At the end of the day, I think a lot of it was just the way things worked out.
Because life teaches you things, if you let it, and one of the things it’s taught me, through my parents, is that life doesn’t follow the rules you’re taught you need to follow in order to live it right.
It’s an age-old axiom that life rarely works out the way you think it will, that plans change, and we often look at that with a profound sense of disappointment, at least I do, thinking of all the regrets, failures, and dead dreams we’ll have to live with. But looking at my own parents’ lives I’ve come to realize that, while disappointment is certainly a part of life, it isn’t the only part, or even the biggest, and that unpredictability is actually its greatest beauty.
My mom has had a lot of dreams in her life. She always wanted to be a foreign missionary. She never wanted to live anywhere in the US but Texas. She always wanted to work with elementary school kids. And she always thought she’d grow up to be exactly like her mother.
And the strange, sad thing of it is: none of those things are true. Some of it never happened. She’s never been overseas. Some of it happened for a while but then things changed. She stopped teaching years ago and knows she’ll likely never go back. Some of the things she was sure of didn’t pan out. About 5 years ago, she and my dad moved all the way up to New York. And some of the things haven’t panned out like she thought. She hasn’t really turned into Ganmama; at least not in the way she expected to.
My mom’s life, and especially career, can best be described as her doing the thing she swore she would never do.
She liked kids, but she didn’t want to teach in a school. She taught in schools for more than 20 years.
She liked teaching but only in private schools. When I was in high school, she started teaching at a public elementary.
She loved teaching elementary and never wanted to quit. When I was in college, she started working at the financial aid office doing admin work.
She liked admin work but never wanted anything to do directly with the college students. Less than a year after making that very statement, she was working as a financial aid counselor.
She loved Texas and never wanted to live anywhere else. She’s been living in New York state for years now and is pretty sure she’ll never live in Texas again.
My mother is the stable one in our family and, like me, tends to not charge headfirst into change. Every transition came with turmoil, and more often than not she was dragged to each new endeavor with her heels dug in. But the amazing thing is, once she was there, she thrived. She made teacher of the year after one year of public school teaching. She got the financial aid counselor job just by asking, and her boss refused to put her in at entry level and promoted her to the next rank before she even officially started.
And my dad’s story is no less surprising. He’s gone from West Point Graduate to US Army Captain to honest-to-goodness rocket scientist to high school math teacher to college professor to teaching at West Point Military Academy, with, and I’m not making this up, grocery store stock-boy thrown in the middle. And dad, being the not-so-normal one in the family, has gone, skipping, into each new challenge; often being the one responsible for dragging my mother into change.
It’s a bit of an oversimplification, people aren’t paradigms after all, but in many ways, mom and dad are total opposites. Where he’s hot, she’s cold. Where he’s flighty, she’s solid. Where she worries and plans, he trusts and believes. But, dear God, if you met them you’d know there’s nobody who belongs with each other more.
It’s fun watching how they’ve changed each other, how they’ve built a life with such opposite bits.
And that’s the thing I’ve learned watching them. Life doesn’t go the way you plan, but the way it goes can be something amazing. And while there is trial and pain and heartbreak, while it is not easy a lot of the time, the shape that things take as they form can still amaze you. If you choose to look for it.
My parents would likely not have chosen the path they have been on. They certainly could never have planned it. But I know, because they have told me, that where they have found themselves is exactly where they belong.
And that fills me with a lot of hope. Because it’s easy to think that, at my age, I need to have more of my life figured out, and since it feels like I have none, it’s easy to feel like a failure. But my parents, who are some of the most responsible people I know, in their 60’s still don’t have it figured out, have gone through more major career changes than one would expect from baby boomers, and yet are thriving.
I’m not discounting long-term planning either. It’s important to look ahead, but given what I’ve learned about life from my parents, we need to be prepared for the unexpected to fundamentally alter and even, sometimes, completely demolish those plans. That can be disappointing, and if we live in that disappointment we can be sure of always being disappointed. But, at the same time, there’s a certain freedom to it, to know that it’s okay if we aren’t sure where we’ll be in 5, 10, or 50 years. Because one thing is for sure, it won’t be exactly where we think we will be.
And one thing, even now, that I’m learning from my parents is that it’s never too late to start something. My mom has gone through major career shifts over her life and now is more or less a stay-at-home wife; something she had long since decided was just not practical for them. My dad has quit quite a few stable, engaging jobs over the years to pursue new callings; each one at the time seemed crazy and yet each one turned out to be the right move.
Now, my parents are talking retirement, and it’s surprising to hear them. Because it’s not so much “where can we settle down?” but “what can we do next?” I can tell, in some way, they are just waiting to see what gets thrown at them. It’s taken them decades, but they’ve learned that life is going to shape itself, whether they like it or not.
And I know I can hate that fact or I can accept it, and I’m learning that if I do, I just might surprised at what shape life takes.
(Image by Chaitra: http://itspinkpot.com/creative-convex)