Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Choices We Make

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 barbeques, 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.


  1. David Dean, my husband of thirteen years and Lori De Grusha best friend of two years have been the most influental people in my life. The city of New Orleans and the ongoing traditions is my heart. Uncovering and writing about this unique place, every day, is like Christmas morning every time. Thanks for your directions on reflections....

  2. Aww...or rather... AWE.
    Mums are amazing

  3. Love this, Jeanne. What a beautiful tribute to your mama. She must be very proud of you.

  4. I'm sure you're mother is as proud of you as you are of her. As they say, like mother like daughter. I hope your daughter writes something like this about you one day.

  5. The person I admire most would have to be Father Tackney, a Catholic priest. I grew up in an alcohol home among other things, but he showed me what great strength was. He had been in an automobile accident and had his jaw wired. No matter what I was going through as a child I admired his strength and fortitude.

    Your mother was a great person. It shows there was wonderful mothers out there.

  6. In a similar vein my father is a great inspiration to me. He was a cinema projectionist, (I was a cinema projectionist) the man who introduced me to the silver screen and all its wonders. As a five year old I sat in the projection booth, spinning round trying to shoot down TIE fighters on release day of Star Wars (before the subtitle hit).

    As a single parent he worked hard but always had a smile. Field of Dreams is a favourite film as it touched a nerve: did my dad have dreams he never pursued? He was 42 when he died from cancer (he never smoke, only drank shandy); I was 12. I then went to live with an aunt and uncle (very Peter Parker).

    I'm 38. 4 years to try beat Dad's record. He inspired me to go for my dreams, because you never know what tomorrow may bring...

  7. Jonathan, at our little local theatre, I got to go into the projection booth last month. What an amazing space. Looking at the notes scribbled on the walls, I could imagine all the fun had in that room... if walls could talk indeed. Your dad sounds like he taught you well, Peter Parker. And your spidey senses are definitely tingling with the incredible year you've had. I'm really proud of you, and happy to be on this crazy ride together.

  8. Like mother, like daughter. Sounds like the best compliment you could receive!

  9. Thanks Ludovicah, Julie and Roger. Mom is amazing. I called her this morning to tell her I was writing about her. She shared some more details I hadn't remembered as a child, like how Jules wouldn't even let other men drive his bulldozer, and how when the neighbor men found out she was riding it in her bikini, they raced over - haha. I had no memory of that.

    Yes, Roger, if my girl gets only half the inspiration from me that I got from my own mom, I'll be thrilled. :)

    To the person with the inspirational priest, I'm thrilled you had him in your life. I know the damage alcoholism can do to a childhood. You were blessed to have a safety net. Thank you for sharing him with me.

  10. I love this post! Your Mom sounds amazing. I aspire to be the kind of Mom that my daughters want to be when they grow up. And then I hope they decide not to be me anyway, but to be themselves.
    Insane November is all but done. So what's next? Crazy December?

  11. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. You definitely have "a cool Mom."

  12. Ha! This is awesome!

    Has your mom read this? I hope my daughter feels like writing something similar about me one day... Now, where did I park that bulldozer...

  13. Your Mom is hot.

    This is great writing. The details are concentrated in the right places.

    Hope you show it to your Mother.

  14. As a child and for a short time, I knew Fran Veillette. Long ago, she and my mother were friends. In a small but important way, she saved me from an unhappy childhood. I remember her taking dance classes, belly dancing classes, in Pittsfield Mass. I remember being at her house and listening to a Beatles 8-track. I remember her as a "tour de force" and while I'm delighted to learn that she set up the sprinklers in a way that made sense to her, and that she drove a bulldozer that was temporarily abandoned, I must say (which is to write) that I'm not the least surprised. Jeanne, if your mom remembers me, please give her "my best" and thank her for giving me some of "hers" at a time when I most needed it. Vanessa la Rae (Machado)

  15. Your mom sounds awesome! Thank you for sharing this story. As for my own writing inspiration and choices, I can't pinpoint one person, event, or idea. It seems to be a culmination of everything that's happened in my life until now, and will probably change as the days go by.

  16. My husband has been a great influence on me. I strive to be the Christian he is. My good friend has been the greatest influence in my life of writing. Her strength and committment is unlike anyone I've known and she has been a source of inspiration and encouragement to me.

  17. Claire, Susan, Lynne, my mom totally rocks! Thanks for your kind words.

    Todd, you made her day :)

    Vanessa, I read your comment to my mom. She's deeply touched. So glad to see you here! Hope all is well in your world.

    Chana, inspirations that change are wonderful too. You never know when the next one will strike :)

    Donna, I'm thrilled your husband and friend are so inspiring to you. I hope they continue to support your writing and feed your soul.