Who and Why I Am: My Story

My teenaged daughter once castigated me for making a scene and embarrassing her at the drugstore. I had taken in a doctor’s prescription with my name on it and when I got the hand-written receipt for tax purposes, the clerk had written the following:
Mr. Ron Cougler (for Elaine)
as though I were a child and Ron, my parent instead of my husband. It was another in a long list of subtle woman-therefore-inferior experiences I encountered as a young female. A concept which my daughter had to grow up to understand.

I was raised in a loving menagerie of thirteen children, nine of them boys, all of us independent, joyfully embracing the world, and even a bit clever. But when those brothers teased or tried to best me, I beat them at their own games. Tom-boy? Yes. Wimp? Absolutely not. My  self-taught, community-minded parents expected us all, boys and girls, to try our very best.

Society treated boys and girls differently but not my parents. Oh, sure, my brothers did chores in the barn and I helped Mom in the house but I, the oldest girl after four brothers, was the first one who went to university. (I had nervously asked Dad, he said yes, and I said, “but I thought you’d spend the money on the boys.” “None of them has asked to go,” he replied.)

Perhaps that vote of confidence from my dad helped me grow into the person I am today. Certainly my clever, well-organized, independent mother blazed a well-marked trail for me to follow. She always expected me to work at my peak and be a credit to my family.

Those two gave me the confidence to speak up and step out, reaching for my goals, whatever they might be. I am someone who listens hard for my own marching music; I’m not so swayed by group dynamics. My mother used to say, “If the other kids jumped off the third line bridge, would you do it, too?” Think for yourself, she said, and her voice still echoes in the memory corners of my brain.

Dad was famous for sitting quiet in family groups as we fought to voice our adult opinions, often politically oriented, and then, just as the spinning top of our discussion would begin to slow, he would quietly speak the words, his words, of summation, of considered opinion, and of brilliance. I was married and a mother of two children before I learned to appreciate his skill. No wonder he was so revered in local politics. Now I wait till others have spoken, consider their words, and try to be the ‘closer’, just like my father.

Girls are said to learn much from their mothers and I am no different. With all her faults, and she had them, she gave me the greatest gift: the model of her reciprocated love for my father. The youngest in a family where her parents divorced, she saw first-hand not to drag your eight-year-old along as you followed your philandering husband. She once told me about watching me play on  my eighth birthday, her head full of herself at that age, her mother’s hand pulling her along as they trailed her father, and she knew in her innermost parts that she could never do that to me. (Of course my Grandma was a lovely, loving Grandma and I wouldn’t trade her, but people make mistakes.)

My mother, then, knew how to overcome demons. After I grew up and left home, she became my very best friend. She always listened when I carried the tales of my first teaching jobs home or when I looked for advice in raising our two children. When my husband’s mother died suddenly, Mom, not a particularly demonstrative woman, took her son-in-law in her arms and just held him.

With those two parents in my background all my life, even now that they are both gone, I must be true to my own person. A good part of that means never giving up, neither on who I might be nor on what I want for myself, my future, and my legacy. When the final fleeting essence of who I really am floats out into the universe, I want my daughter (and my son, too) to know that I always tried to speak up, to write better, to sing better, to love better, to like more, and to reach, reach, reach for my very own star.

Consider leaving a comment about pivotal moments in your own life, as a writer or as a person. Who is your role model? How much of your personal story are you willing to tell the world?

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17 thoughts on “Who and Why I Am: My Story

  1. thats really touching, a great story, I think we all get things from our parents sometimes we realize sometimes we don’t its just something that life instills in us. I wish I had the role models you did, it sounds like growing up in such a large family was exciting/adventurous (your tom boy side).. I would like to say I got my traits and love for things that weren’t in my home, my love for writing comes from the idea I never had a voice in my home it was a way/form of self expression..
    I enjoyed this a lot and look forward to reading more

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing this aspect of your life, Elaine. I am the opposite of you – an only child. And at times lonely when a child though after I grew up I had no problem with loneliness. A lot of what I have learned in life I have had to learn from people outside my home and my family. Not that I had a bad childhood, but there was a lot missing. I can see that in retrospect though I don’t suppose as a child I would have realized that to any great extent.

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    • Interesting to ponder which scenario is better, eh Diane? Each has its pluses and minuses. Sometimes in a large family you long for alone time with your parents or even just yourself. Thanks for showing the other side!

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      • I probably learned to do a lot of things to amuse myself that I would never have done had I come from a large family. I did more kinds of crafts than I can remember. My father never had a big-paying job, but the money didn’t have to stretch as far with only three of us as it would amongst a bunch of us so I probably got more than some kids, but never as much as the richer kids. And I learned to be comfortable with my own company. I think that is an invaluable lesson that many people never learn.

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    • Were you a tomboy, too, Jessica? Sometimes I think those were my defining moments, those times when I could just be and not be constrained be society’s prescribed rules for little girls. And don’t forget I did all these things in dresses, the only things girls wore then!

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  3. What a beautiful testament, Elaine. I am fascinated by the dynamics of large families. My greatest achievement was going back to school in my mid-thirties to do a science degree at University of Toronto. My daughter shouted, Yay, Mom from the balcony as I accepted my degree in Convocation Hall. Attending a full-time science program with three kids was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I loved sharing not just the cutting edge things I was learning, but a love of learning with my kids.

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    • I went back, too, and via extension courses added almost another whole degree in English. That was wonderful as I was so engaged in my courses. And showing my kids my marks added another element as I was not just telling but showing them to do well.
      I so love your story about your daughter at your graduation. She was just so proud of you!

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    • Thanks, Miriam! I love the premise for your blog. Being happy is just so important. I think it was in The Secret that I read we are meant to be happy in our lives. That is a pivotal statement, isn’t it?

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