When that mall opened, I envied young mothers. They had a place to walk with their babies, to entertain the babies and themselves at the same time. When you guys were little, there was no place to go.
At one point, I wanted your father to build a playroom. Your toys were all over and I kept stepping on them. He enclosed the carport and put in a driveway in 1976. Then he built an addition onto the house, but it turned out to be a bar. And he didn’t want it to be messy, either.
CB radios were all the craze, and he set up a little CB station in that closet in the addition. Remember that? He spent a lot of time talking on the CB with his friends.
What did you do for work, and what was a typical day like?
I had to get you kids up and to school. You and Rachel were okay; Patrick was the hardest to wake up. I would drop you and Rachel off at junior high, and Patrick would walk or take the bus to school.
I worked for the Department of Social Services. I supervised anywhere from six to ten (sometimes as many as fifteen) people who determined eligibility for public assistance.
My workdays consisted mostly of training people (often on a one-on-one basis), fielding phone calls from disgruntled clients, and dealing with disgruntled employees. I also represented the agency in administrative hearings to determine whether decisions made on behalf of clients were in line with policy and regulations. Auditors would come through and nitpick our work. The work was incredibly frustrating.
We didn’t have computers in the office, of course. At one time, I had to fight for adding machines for doing budgets. But by the time I was forty, we were past those and working with some kind of electronic predecessor of the computer.
Now on the other hand, the grass was not necessarily greener on the other side of the fence. Even though the job got worse every year, I stayed because the benefits were excellent, including medical insurance for the whole family. I had the flexibility to take time off work in an emergency or if one of you kids was sick. My pay was good compared to pay for others in the private sector. My job was relatively secure. There were a lot of good reasons to keep the job.
At the time, your dad was going from job to job as factories kept closing. Since he was home quite a bit, he was fixing dinner every night. (I remember coming home from a rough day at work with you kids in tow, and your cousin Kim, who was living with us at the time, asked “What’s for dinner?” I replied, “I don’t know, but from now on it had better be on the table when I get home.” And from then on, it was. And we discovered all the wonderful things one can do with pepperoni, jalapenos, and black olives.) Your dad also fixed the lunches, and he always put notes in them for you. And he took over some of the grocery shopping.
I was in charge of signing papers, scheduling, making contact with the school, making sure the homework got done. I sometimes wrote the checks to pay the bills, and sometimes your dad did. I also did all the laundry and a lot of the cleaning. There was always something going on and there was always something to be done, and you didn’t let anything sit, because there was no way you were going to get to it later.
I hardly ever watched TV at the time. I only caught a few moments at a time as I passed through the room. (I thought it was weird—if a show was a repeat, I always managed to walk through and see exactly the same part I had already seen.)
By then, you kids were involved in band. I remember going to your brother’s last junior high concert, and thinking “I’ve been listening to sixth-graders playing ‘Hill Song’ for nine years now.” But I did learn a lot about music from going to your concerts. You guys were my music appreciation course.
Things got a lot busier with band activities. We did a lot with Band Boosters. And my mother had had a heart attack and quadruple-bypass surgery. We were helping her a lot, and fixing up her house so she could sell it and move into an apartment. We were also helping out your father’s parents, because they had a lot of serious health problems emerge around then as well.
What did you worry or think about the most?
At forty, my primary worry was about my job. It was all-consuming, pretty much. The politics in the office were sometimes overwhelming—not only the interpersonal politics, but the politics behind the welfare policies. I was always bringing home training materials, policy manuals. There was no time during the day to do that stuff. If I had to discipline an employee or write anything up, I pretty much had to do that at home. Between housework and my job, it was a lot of stress.
My mother had been the breadwinner in the family, because my dad was sick. I learned from my mother that I needed to be able to support my family alone if necessary. So that was one of the principles driving me at the time.
What did you think the future held for you?
I thought your father and I would get to go to Paris, because he wanted to take me there. [He died in 2002.] I didn’t have a lot of time to think forward, honestly. We daydreamed about Paris. We talked about things we’d like to do with the house. We looked forward to things just like everyone else does: Your kids will grow up; you’ll have some time to yourselves; you won’t have to work; maybe you’ll travel a little bit. But if you think about that too much and have to go back to work, you make yourself crazy.
How do you look back on that age now?
There were ten years there that were just a blur of activity. You kids were very busy, and I was very busy, and during those ten years I had three parents in poor health. I was their caretaker. My responsibilities to your grandparents increased a lot in that period.
Sometimes I would go sit in the car and just scream and cuss. [She laughs.] I now realize that everyone in the neighborhood heard me, because cars really aren’t that soundproof. Very embarrassing.
What did you spend most of your money on?
[Thank you to Vanessa Wieland for this question.]
Ha. Well, most of it was neccessities. A lot of musical instruments seemed to make their way into the house, but we considered those necessities. And then there were music lessons. And then there were your dad’s hobbies. CBs. Photography. Woodworking and construction on the house. Designing logos for your schools and bands. He was disgustingly good at everything.
You liked crafting too. Every Christmas, you handmade presents for all your staff. Which was very sweet.
Driving all of you crazy in the process. I don’t know why I did that. Me and you kids usually wound up making cookies after Christmas, because that’s when I had time. I’d be like a crazy woman.
We spent money on what we needed—we were both very frugal. Your dad always wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get caught in a bad debt situation. We always bought everything outright, not on interest. Except for the cars and the house. And we would usually pay the cars off early. Friends had boats and campers and trailers. We didn’t.
What did you do for fun? Who did you spend time with for fun?
We had couples over occasionally. (Dad did build a bar, remember?) We had great New Year’s parties. Our friends really looked forward to those.
What would you tell your then-self, if you had a chance?
[Thank you to Vanessa Wieland for this question.]
There are a lot of things I could have told my then-self, but my then-self wouldn’t have been ready to hear them and understand them, probably. My then-self was who I was then. What do you tell somebody who can’t hear you?
[Nicole makes the sign language symbol for bullshit.]
Is that a snail pooping?
No, it’s sign language for “bullshit.”
Why would you do that? Are you telling me that what I’m saying is bullshit?
No! It’s just funny to do that when someone can’t hear what you’re saying.
To a deaf person? That’s mean!
No! Not to a deaf person!
[Pause. Mutual decision to skip the topic.]
I wish I could have learned the dharma then. Work is not what’s important. Wake up and smell the roses, or whatever. But if I couldn’t hear it then. I couldn’t hear it. I wasn’t grown up enough.
I always ask this question at the end of an interview: What should I have asked, but didn’t?
I just told you what, at forty, I wasn’t ready to hear. So there’s nothing I could have told myself.
But the right question would have been: “What information do you think would help other people who are now forty, based on what you’ve learned?”
And I think that is: Stop long enough to listen to yourself and not believe what you’re telling yourself. It’s all bullshit.
Wait … so I was right?
Yes. Listen to what you’re telling yourself, and don’t believe a word of it.