Last week, I wrote about the value of deliberately creating memories and I have previously written about the value of tradition and of family stories. Our lives and our memories often revolve around those special times.
But there is also value in the ordinary and the routine.
What seems commonplace to us can be extraordinary to others. One hundred years from now, what will your great-great-grandchildren want to know about your daily life? What will you want them to know?
When our family volunteered at This is the Place State Park a number of years ago, the most common questions we were asked revolved around the ordinary. How did those early pioneers cook for their large families? How did they fit 10 people in a tiny cabin? How did they bathe? What did they wear? Were they sad at their lot in life? Happy? Resolute? What did they do for fun?
I hear the same kind of questions about refugee camps. How do they feed their families? What do they do for water? What do they wear? Do they play? How and where are their babies born?
In other words, how are “they” like “me”?
When we read journals of our great-grand parents — or even non-relatives, don’t we love the every-day details? How much they paid for their first car, or their first house. Details about the movies they saw and enjoyed. The same kind of details we perhaps think irrelevant in our own lives.
I am currently typing up my great-grandmother’s autobiography, written in 1963 when she was already 77 years old. In it, she talks about being pulled across the Michigan snow in a sled with runners, on moving to Indiana and going to school, about sewing her own clothes and wearing her hair in the “fashion of the day,” pulled back and fastened with a big bow.
After her high school graduation (class of 1904), she writes: “I was offered a positions as book-keeper and cashier in Clark’s dry-goods store. My father tried to talk me out of it and said would not I better stay home and help my mother. I, like all others I guess, wanted to be more independent so went and took a job. It was a real job altho’ it did only pay $2 a week and when I got a raise, it was 50 cents.”
This week, I talked to one of my teens about minimum-wage jobs. She was shocked to find out that my first job in 1981 paid $3.35 an hour. Getting $2 a week was incomprehensible to her. And, it is the sort of ordinary that too often gets overlooked as we share our stories.
The power of the ordinary is brought to light when doing family history work. The “Ask Grandma A Question” type of books focus on those ordinary questions. “Where were you born? What was the house like where you grew up? What was your first job? How much did you earn? Where did you meet grandpa?”
It’s also evident in the photojournalism books that show an average family’s possessions around the world, or that show an average week’s worth of meals. Again, most of us are fascinated by questions of how others are like ourselves. Many times — most times, probably — we are far more alike than we are different. And we are alike in our ordinary-ness.
We hopefully all have moments that take our breath away. But, the truth is we will spend most of our lives in the ordinary. Learning to appreciate — and then share those moments, too, will add richness and depth to the legacy we leave behind.
Mary Ellen Mark, a renowned photographer spent decades photographing the ordinary, which often became the iconic. She said this: “There is nothing more extraordinary than reality.” It’s worth celebrating the ordinary AND the momentous.
Holly Richardson lives a life of extraordinary ordinariness.