Memoir: Was my life worthwhile?

Marcia Strean

Read at the memoir-writing workshop for senoir citizens

March 5, 2012


There are days when I think I’ll be hanging around for awhile, and others when I wonder whether I should buy the 36 pack of toilet paper--two ply only please. If I buy one now, it will be the 4th one of that size that I put in my shopping basket, questioning if I would live to use it up. I wondered what my family would do with all the T.P. when they came to clean out my house. I remember my mother had a four pack under her bathroom sink, when I cleaned out her apartment after her death. [Note: the next week I found and purchased an 18 pack of toilet paper…]

And then I wonder, what did I do to make my life worth while? What did I contribute? The ordinary things of life: being a good citizen, raising good kids, helping people, were fine, but the underlying ambition reached higher than that. And, like never having gotten to New Zealand, other wishes still not and therefore won’t be achieved.

Years ago on a personal clean-up, before the family got to go through all the stuff, I threw out evidence of my community activities. They wouldn’t care, would they? But if I want to be up there with Abou Ben Adam, I better get my curriculum vitae in order.

First, and I sincerely believe this, raising children to have inner certainty, to be loved and be able to love, tops the list. It is not as easy as it sounds: it doesn’t require money or formal education, but the luck of having had reasonably decent parents was out of our control, yet, to me, a major factor in being able to be a good parent. For whatever issues I have had that made me less of a person than I might have wanted to be, I was ready to have children when I did, loved them unambivalently, was very involved in their lives to the point, not of smothering, but of being available in any way they needed me. Not to say they don’t show signs of imperfection, one not married, one having married twice (that evens out doesn’t it?) but both sons are loving, caring people, working in valuable ways that help people grow. They are very smart, educated, funny, have friends, and are valuable additions to the world.

Having a reasonably communicative, cooperative marriage plays a part in the raising of children. Obviously harder than raising the kids, seeing how many people don’t make it through life with one marriage. Or, staying just because of societal or family pressure, or financial dependence. I lasted, sometimes clambering off the rocks just in time, and wish I could go back and re-do that better. Slide back a few notches on the line behind Abou.

I’ve always been an action person. Not wallow in the do-nothing political situation and do nothing myself. When I saw a need, I volunteered. I did the job as well as I could. I think it was always known of me, from high school on, that to appoint me to do a job meant it would be done well. Not to have to get elected: I hate depending on other people’s approval and votes to do my part. So I was active in civil rights issues early in my life: with CORE checking out bowling alleys in Brooklyn with mixed races to be sure there was no discrimination. In Fair Housing in Bergen County checking that blacks could get houses and apartments they wanted. President of United World Federalists to get nations to work for common good instead of individual sovereignty and superiority; still believe in that unlikely accomplishment.

Did sit-ins at lunch counters that wouldn’t let black students eat there in Bloomington, Indiana at college, in 1947 long before freedom riders were active. Worked to have immigrant labor treated fairly, even to providing our then Congressman with a full picture of the country’s situation. Organized a lettuce strike, a grape strike for union labor to supply those products. Fought for a pool where both black and white citizens could utilize the cool water. Organized and directed the Peace Center during the Vietnam War, taking more meetings and time than my husband appreciated. Ran political campaigns locally and statewide for candidates who stood for important causes.

As a professional social worker, I honed my skills and love of people to do a good job helping children, parents, individuals to resolve problems standing in their way to a happier life.

I love people, I hate to let them go. Modern technology helps--email over snail mail letters, but still can’t possibly keep up with all the dear family and friends.

Volunteered at the NY Botanical Garden, so far for eleven years, to spread knowledge and pleasure in native plants. Have had a full garden of native plants since 1993.

Crafts: have painted, embroidered, knitted (“we really don’t want any more sweaters!”), done photography.

Sports and physical activity were an innate part of me: “athlete” has to have a prominent place on my gravestone. In one week years ago did eleven different sports. Was an early if not first woman to get a Coast Guard license. When I commented that every one in my family but I had a Ph.D., Rich said, “But you are the only one with a Captain’s license.” I took hundreds of people sailing and became really adept at that. Also swimming which I did for ten years every day. I was not great at anything, but always good: cross country skiing, canoeing, biking, tennis, hiking. Less good at golf but improved.

Hate bullies and feel for the underdog. If kids are picking on another kid, I butt in. If cops are hassling a kid, I stand by so they know they are watched.

I don’t litter, I go regularly to recycling, I compost all the vegetable and fruit debris every day.

I care about animals, became a vegetarian and not an indulgent eater. I detest being fat and it is important to me to be disciplined. I do my part to stay healthy so when something bad happens to me physically it won’t be my fault.

How many people have I “carried” through life, some still on my regular schedule? Getting medical help for some, being there for regular consultations when life was tough for them, listening, giving money, loving. I put this high on the list of worthwhile living.

The negatives get a listing too. Some people like me for it, others not: speaking the truth. I’ve learned that it helps more to be supportive than critical, and something I will continue to need to practice, and I think I’m better at it.

They’ll still have to take care of a huge collection accumulated during a “don’t throw away” lifetime, and will the above make the effort acceptable? At least they’re likely to have free toilet paper.