Friday, April 8, 2011

Choices and Chances

It was 6:00 pm. I stood at the gas pump, filling up my car yet again and watching half of a hundred dollars trickle into the tank. I had not yet got home from work so I was still in my nice office clothes, tired and in a hurry to get to the house.

Just across from the gas station there is a two story building with a store on the lower level and apartments above. The building has seen better days--the paint is fading and peeling and the railing is rusted. An exterior stairways leads down to a concrete pad and a parking lot. Weeds crowd the cracks in the concrete and small bits of debris litter the edges.

I watched two women start down the steps from the apartments, each carrying laundry. The younger woman carried a large plastic basket and was smoking a cigarette as she descended. In front of her was an older, heavier woman carrying a big plastic hamper that was clearly heavy and difficult to manage. The two women stopped midway, perhaps for a breather or for time to let the younger one finish her smoke. The older woman seemed to be having a hard time breathing; maybe the hamper was so heavy that it made the steps a challenge for her, or maybe she had trouble with her knees and it was a painful descent.

As I stood there by my nice car in my nice clothes and watched, I wondered at the differences between us. Why was I the one with the nice car and clothes and these two the ones who had to carry laundry from a second-floor apartment and across the street to a laundromat? What in our lives had mandated where we are today? Could it have been me living in the walk-up apartment over a secondhand store?

Life sometimes seems random, like a pitch that turns into a home run for one batter and a strikeout for another. Lord knows I did not start in the best of positions. There might have seemed little hope for me  considering I married and had a child at 17, no high school diploma, and then had three more children in relatively rapid succession. For many people that could have been the three strikes that put them out of the game.

Is it choices or chance that make us successful? What choices put me at the gas pump and those two struggling down the steps? I realize that I am conjecturing here--those ladies may be content with their lives and what they have accomplished. For all I know, they could be breast cancer survivors, have escaped abusive situations or not have a bill in this world besides cheap rent and utilities. For some, that could be all they want from life and they are satisfied.

At 17 all I wanted was a little home and a little family. We had a some cash ($1500) from a car wreck insurance settlement that we used for a down payment on a small house. My family's disappointment in my lack of a diploma and and my own dissatisfaction with not having finished something I started pushed me into night school after my second child to get that degree. At 20, all I wanted was some land and a house in the country. Three years later we moved to West Virginia, bought land and built the house I still live in. And that could have also be a fatal, failing choice because West Virginia has never been an easy place to make a living, and choosing a place as remote and far from any city with potential employment was not smart. But it's what we did and we paid for that choice for several years. In fact, it probably cost us our marriage. My first husband left and returned to the place we had left, where work was plentiful and the living a lot easier.

I chose to stay. As a single mother with four sons, that was probably not such a good choice either but when you love a place your roots go deep. Remarriage and another baby, my husband and I working for minimum wage--again, it would seem like the odds were stacked for failure. And yet, we didn't. We persevered, finding opportunities to work a little more, ride together to save money, and continue the farming we had been doing to keep the ends together.

What put us finally on the track to a less precarious lifestyle was the Pell Grant. Starting college at 36 with five children seems like another opportunity to fail but day by day we made it work; I continued to work part-time, a very good neighbor did childcare for our baby son and we kept going.

When I look at the choices I've made, I can't say they were all good. It's been a journey with some surprising twists and a few turnarounds, but a journey upward all the same. Where along that path might I have ended up in a second floor apartment with a laundromat across the street? As a young mother with so many children? As a newcomer to West Virginia with no clue about the economy of the state? As a divorced woman with many bills, a minimum wage job and a home and family to maintain? I ask myself those questions and then ask why it didn't happen. I'm not sure I know the answer except that we kept trying, we kept working and we kept loving our home and state.

Retirement is the next step in my journey and again the possibilities for failure loom. We might not have enough money. We might get sick or hurt and end up with huge medical expenses. Many bad things could still happen to put us into that apartment.

There are no guarantees. I suppose that's the bottom line to this saga, this thing we call life. Any one of us can be the winner, and we all stand a chance of ending up a loser. All we can do is continue to try, explore and take a few swings at some of the good pitches we're thrown.

As for those two ladies, God bless them. I hope their lives are as interesting and fulfilling as mine has been, and that the dry laundry will be a little lighter on the return trip.


LoiS-sez said...

Thanks, G'Sue, for your post. You're right, there are no guarantees, but it sure would be a help to know that what's inside us will help it work out. (Looking at Japan lately especially makes me think about this.)

At the risk of sounding "churchy", 2 Bible verses pop out at me. I live by Romans 8:28's promise that God "works all things for the good of those who love Him & are called according to His holy purpose." It doesn't mean it will always be obvious why it's working for good, but it helps to know it. The other is His promise to be a lamp unto my feet. I sometimes wish it were a great big light showing more than just my feet, then I remember the big light just might be the light from an oncoming train!!!

LoiS(o I go back to it being helped by whatever is inside us)

Gwyn said...

Sue, My son has been going to college on a Pell Grant as well. I hope his story turns out as well as yours has, as he, too, had not always made the best of choices early on. Your story just shows that a person always DOES have choices, thanks for your thoughts...

A Vintage Green said...

Sue, thank you for sharing your life story. I know my dh and I spend a lot of time talking about choices and paths taken and how to manage the 'now and future'. It is an ongoing, fluid process.
- Joy

Mimi Foxmorton said...

The Universe, she is a funny lady, eh.....? ;)

I somehow think that, ultimately, we end up right where we need to be.

Have a wonderful day.
I don't get to enjoy your posts nearly enough.

Granny Sue said...

There are times I wonder, "what if?" I don't think I would change most of it; it's been interesting, varied, and never dull. Some mis-steps, some sadness I would like to erase but on the whole life has treated me gently.

Gwyn, I hope your son does well too. I was fortunate to be able to make it through school iwth little debt, and then my job paid for my master's degree. There is always a way for those willing to find it--I really believe that.

Granny Sue said...

Lois, I see what you mean--esp about the oncoming train :)

Granny Sue said...

fluid is a good word for it, Joy. Ever-changing, and who knows what the next thing will be? We can plan but we can't know for certain.

And Mimi, you come on by anytime!

warren said...

Great story!

Lynn Ruehlmann said...

Wow, Susanna, so many new things to know about you! Wonderful post.

Gingerbreadshouse7 said...

For a while there I thought you were talking about me!
Life is full of choices to make...hopefully we end up making the right ones or suffer with the bad ones...Sometimes listening to elderss helps to make decisions , if we listen.

Liz said...


Thanks for this beautiful story. It came at a time when I am looking at a transition myself. They are a bit easier when we are young but no less exciting! Deep breath and on we go!


Granny Sue -- Your post has some complex thoughts. Here are my thoughts on your post. So many factors add to success or failure in one's journey through life -- not necessarily only economic but perhaps social as well. Or maybe just one of the two may start one's life spinning. Perhaps education, maybe family background, hard work, discipline, luck, etc. -- any or all can contribute to how you may live your life. Not everyone chooses what we would choose. Good questions in your post. Retirement -- if Congress doesn't mess up social security and medicare you should be fine. Many seniors live nicely on reduced incomes.

Granny Sue said...

Sometimes taking time to reflect provides a clearer view of the path ahead--at least acknowledging the signposts and potholes. Gingerbread, I wonder how many women can identify with our lives? Probably many, many of them.

Liz, good luck with your coming change. It will all be good because you will make it so.

Lynn, it's been a checkered and certainly a different path! Rich in experience, poor in money but overall--just fine :)

It is funny how one image can spark days of reflection, Barbara. Those women have been on my mind for several days, and in the end writing this post helped me understand why.

steeleweed said...

Life is not a goal but a journey. What matters most is the company you travel with; spouse, family, friends, community.

I was going to say 'trip' but those who lived through the '60s might misinterpret... :-D

Granny Sue said...

Lol! How true about a trip :) And also about the company along the way. You reminded me of the Canterbury Tales and how their travels were lightened with stories.

JJM said...

I am actually reminded here of the story Vitruvius, architect of ancient Rome, tells in the preface to the sixth book of his Ten Books on Architecture (which was dedicated to his contemporary, the emperor Augustus).

The philosopher Aristippos was shipwrecked on the coast of Rhodes -- he and the other survivors had lost all but what they had worn when the waves swallowed their ship. Seeing signs of civilization, he made his way to the city and to the university (which, in those days, was called a gymnasium; but that's an explanation for another day).

After the manner of a time before such things became formal, with diplomas and tenure and hiring committees, he found himself a spot on the grounds and began to lecture on philosophical subjects. Soon enough, he had gathered an audience. When the lectures were done, his audience gave him money -- not unlike one would pay a street musician today. He returned to the shore with enough money to buy clothing and supplies not only for himself but for the companions shipwrecked with him.

These companions, after arranging passage home for themselves, asked if he had any message he wanted them to pass along. Yes, he said, one message -- give your children the wealth that cannot be taken from them by shipwreck; give them an education, give them knowledge, and they shall never then be completely a stranger in a strange land, they shall never be friendless when they have lost all companions. Those who build their lives upon material wealth, he said, build on unstable ground ...

You may find this tale (in its more formal translation) here:*.html

Clearly, Sue, you were given the wealth of the thirst for knowledge, and the understanding of its worth. You were blessed.


JJM said...

(Architect in ancient Rome, I should have said. There is more about Vitruvius in Wikipedia (of course). His book is far more interesting than one might think -- not exactly a page-turner, but full of fascinating information. Architecture back then was not just designing buildings, it involved the full process: design, engineering, construction management, urban planning -- and knowledge of acoustics, for planning theatres.

Tipper said...

Wonderful writing. I've looked at 'those' 2 women myself and when I compared them to me-I wonder the same things you do. Only now-I also worry about my girls-and how I can keep them from being those 2 women.

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