I never raised you to be ordinary, she said, when I came home from school excited about my
future as a small-town doctor. Just a doctor? she said. She wondered why I wanted to cure people,
instead of populations. Just a librarian? she said. She told me that when I got a Pulitzer
She’d create a book signing, for me and my favorite author Tracy Kidder, who follows extraordinary
people around and records their stories.
I come from a line of strong women, tough women, women who for generations transcended traditions
and ascribed positions, but still dusted the baseboards on Saturdays and cooked steak with
butter. Women who left home and family to do new things, like not having children, like having
children. I come from women who are proud that I go to a women’s-college-not-a-girl’s-school
and wish from their graves that they could join me for commencement luncheon before stealing
all the bacon slices and pineapple.
My great-grandmother’s name was Katherine MacPhail Johnston, and she is my name sake. Grandma
Katie used to put my feet in her mouth when I was an infant and loved to see babies giggle.
We call her a flipper-flapper, because when she immigrated from a tiny farm in Cape Breton
to New York City in the 1920s, she took a job flipping pancakes in a stall on Times Square
by day and danced her bound-bosom off at night in speak-easies.
I guess that my mother wants my life to be more than a sound-byte. I should need paragraphs
in the annual Christmas card, clauses and complex sentences. I can be a librarian, but should
be leading conferences about innovations in computer literacy as well. I can be unemployed,
as long as I help out at church suppers for the impoverished in my copious spare time. My gravestone
should be a billboard full of words in size 10 font.
I find the same urge for complexity. A perfect life for me might involve messy relationships
with inappropriate people and living in the back of my car and crying and lying and nine careers,
all at the same time. I have never said with much conviction, “I’m going to be a doctor
or architect or astronaut or President of Smith College,” and used just the noun. I will
be a doctor who stars in local plays. I will be an architect who foments a social revolution
through green building practices. I will be a President of Smith not only to encourage women
of promise to lead lives of distinction and ask alumnae for cash, but also to learn how to
make the muffins they serve at Hubbard on Mondays.
When my mother says “ordinary” in her derisive tone that makes me think of deflated
jellyfish above the tide line, what I think she means is “simple.” Life is never
simple, she and her mother and mothers and mothers say in a line down to me, and when it is,
You’ve messed up. There is always something else you can be doing, new passions and hobbies,
a career or a relationship where one does not exist. Our women, strong women, complex women,
are not cardboard cutouts and we take up space in the world and on the page.