Heroes: From Tolstoy to My Neighbor Linda by Deb Gail

When I was little I thought no one was more heroic than my mother. She had extraordinary abilities, magical fingers that could French braid my hair and twist tissue paper into flowers. She was a sculptor and a painter, a writer, a gourmet cook, an activist, a decorator and she was warm and fun and funny. Until she grew tired of all that. Including me. My dad was a defense attorney who fought for the rights of the underprivileged which I thought was heroic until he didn’t fight for the rights of his own children. And my mother’s mother? She was like a movie star. Slim and calm and she smelled like Chanel no. 5 and Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and she always brought us gifts in fancy little gift bags and she could stand on her head. But my mother said that was all there was to her mother and when I realized how much that hurt her, and I thought, no wonder she can stand on her head. By 12, I was enamored with Mary Tyler Moore (embarrassingly) but really she was everything I thought I wanted to be (at 12) until later when I learned her son killed himself and I wondered what kind of mother she’d been. In high school there was Susie Day’s mother. She baked and gardened and kept a really nice and comfy house and always showed up at all the high school functions in all the right mother clothes. But rumor had it that every afternoon around 4 she started in on her nightly bottle of Chablis. In college there was Tolstoy but I discovered he was a mean husband and malcontent and there was Virginia Wolf but she did herself in. And the Kennedy’s… I’d grown up admiring the whole clan but that meant overlooking sexism and nepotism and bunch of other isms and all around bad behavior. There were more fallen heroes: Jane Fonda who suffered from eating disorders and Gloria Steinem who let the men in her life control her. I could go on but the thing is it seemed all the people I admired professionally were struggling personally and the ones I admired personally seemed sad for lacking professionally.

This left me feeling lost and disillusioned about how to live my own life until it occurred to me that maybe I was looking too hard, too critically. That all this idealization was actually narrow-minded and judgmental and limiting. And I looked around and found Linda, my neighbor with four young children and a puppy who I have never seen lose her temper at anyone or anything and who always shows up at school events with a freshly baked pie. (She might be on meds but that’s not the point.) And Roseanne, a professor and mother of two very active boys, who in the past few years lost her mother and her best friend and nursed both of them until the end. (I know she has suffered personally and professionally because of these sacrifices, but how could she not?) And Kristy Kiernan, who in addition to writing and selling two novels back to back has taken the time to encourage and nurture other writers. (I’m sure there are times she feels overwhelmed, but don’t we all?) And there are others. Doctors and nurses and technicians who wake in the middle of the night to respond to emergencies. (How can I forget Susan (forgot her last name) the midwife who held my hand through three shifts before helping birth my second baby?) And firefighters and selfless others who put their own lives at risk after 9/11. Soldiers fighting a brutal and senseless war. Teachers teaching, mothers mothering, Peace Corp workers peacecorping. And I know there are things about all of these people I do not know. But that’s okay because now I know that a hero doesn’t have to be hero in every respect. A realization that has not only helped me be easier on my family and friends and neighbors but also easier on myself.


15 Replies to “Heroes: From Tolstoy to My Neighbor Linda by Deb Gail”

  1. Gail, I love this. It’s so true and I needed to be reminded of that. I’ve learned that sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do is show his or her flaws or weaknesses or fears. Because that lets me know I don’t have to be perfect.

    Just what I needed on a cold, icy Monday.

  2. Thanks Liz, Jenny and Judy! You’re right, Judy, I’m learning to find the unique beauty in flaws and that opens the world up much wider…

  3. Role model versus hero? The two are not always one-in-the-same — as you discovered, Gail — yet I totally agree Kristy Kiernan embodies both. How fortunate for as all!

  4. Gail, this was a wonderful ‘kick-off’ for the prompt of the week. I think every hero has a little anti-hero in them…or we’d all be one giant Stepford Tribe. 🙂

  5. If I’m a role model or a hero then we’re all in a lot more trouble than I thought! 😀

    What a lovely post, Gail. I am overwhelmed to be in such company, and you must know that YOU are a hero to so many.

  6. Awww, Kristy… see what I mean about you?

    Jess and Eileen, thanks! And I agree about the anti-hero and the ordinary heroes…

    Larramie, you’ve given me something to think about, is a hero a role model and/or is a role model a hero and when one is not the other… why?

  7. I’m late to comment, but this is a wonderful post, Gail. I am now wracking my brain for what to write on this subject!

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