Josna Rege

159. Ordinary People

In 1970s, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work on September 9, 2012 at 1:56 am

white picket fence (

In the arrogance of youth one is apt to be dismissive, even contemptuous, of people who lead ordinary lives, imagining that in flouting convention and taking the path less trodden one is somehow being more courageous. I’ll never forget the day when, at age 23, it struck me all of a sudden how admirable householders were, those who took out the trash every week, weeded and mowed the lawn, scraped and retouched the peeling paint on the siding, cleared the gutters of wet leaves, kept those picket fences sparkling white. And all this while holding down a job and raising the next generation. I saw that far from being contemptible, the humble householder was in fact noble, even heroic, in his or her stoicism and grace.

I remember Nikhil as a teenager getting annoyed at us, his parents, for using the word “hero” too lightly, as in “Honey, you’re a hero for taking out the trash.” No doubt he was right that in this society there is a tendency to praise people lavishly for things that they should be doing as a matter of course. But who’s to say that taking out the trash isn’t heroic? There are those Sunday nights when it seems to take a superhuman effort to muster the requisite energy. And such tasks, like women’s work, are never done: they must be repeated again and again, in a seemingly endless cycle.

The 1980 movie Ordinary People, based on the novel of the same name by Judith Guest, depicted the dysfunction and discontent that seethed beneath the veneer of ordinariness in a wealthy suburban family. In it, “ordinary” was used ironically, to signify anything but. I agree with the film that the white picket fences of suburbia conceal worlds of pain, but I have also developed a deep respect for the energy and endurance of ordinary people in this rapacious world where even I, as a privileged and educated person, must constantly struggle just to keep my head above water.

At fourteen I was filled with dread at the thought that my whole life might be spent in a tedious job in which I killed time by counting the days to the weekend and the weeks to the next vacation. I vowed to myself that I would never live like that, and rebelled against the white picket fence that stood as a symbol in my mind for everything I rejected and feared. Now that I am a householder I marvel at my counterparts who manage to keep the house and garden neat and trim and the relentlessly mounting clutter under control—who, in fact, do what I used to sneer at: keep up appearances. It is all I can do to keep up with the dishes. That which I held at arm’s length is now my unattainable goal; in the words of the psalm—and Bob Marley—the stone that the builder refused will always be the head cornerstone.

Here’s to ordinary people—the salt of the earth!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Is this because I’m making a movie about Marilyn Monroe? 😉

    The reason I took offense at hero being used for taking out the trash, is that I hoped the ‘ordinary’—which I consider to be the things of routine—could become a personal daily prayer; the maintenance of society. That one could enjoy them, but not need to dwell on them. That they are not undervalued, but also not confused with, the extraordinary; that we keep a place for both.

    “We don’t have
    to overvalue
    the things
    We have to
    value them.”

    • Thank you for your eloquent comment, Nikhil. I’m glad you wrote to correct me, because I realize that in making my point here I wilfully misrepresented your meaning at the time-—or rather, interpreted your subtle point too crudely. You’re quite right that routine tasks can “become a personal daily prayer” (I love that). And you’re also right that it is truly extraordinary when people reach beyond mere (although it isn’t mere) maintenance to create and achieve great things. Of course it should be taken for granted that one takes out the trash without requiring praise. But perhaps, as one grows older and mere maintaining sometimes threatens to overwhelm, one sometimes feels the need for the mutual pats on the back just to keep going at all.

      BTW, who are you quoting in the beautiful passage in quotes? And I didn’t get your ref. to your Marilyn movie–is it that she wanted desperately to be ordinary when everyone else needed her to be a goddess?

      x M

      • What you’re doing now, mom, is extraordinary.

        A thousand pats.


        (I’m quoting “Love Come True,” p. 65)

        • xxx Thank you, dear (though it, too, is part of the maintenance of society and, done with grace, could be a personal daily prayer). And a thousand return cyberpats for your extraordinary efforts.

          NB: Love Come True is Nikhil Melnechuk’s as-yet-unpublished (but not for long) booklength poem-memoir.

  2. Extraordinarily sweet dialogue between mother and son. Thank you both for your courage of words from the heart. What an inspiration!

  3. Aww, that was a lovely glimpse into the relationship you share with your son! And I read something innately modest (which the society needs more of these days) in how your son didn’t want himself to be considered a hero for taking out the trash, whereas you, his mom and as someone with more life’s experiences, wanted to bestow that title upon him.

    Your son’s poem-memoir sounds very interesting. Do let us know when it’s published!

    • Thank you, Hema. I treasure the relationship, which goes on maturing with time. Obviously a teenage boy wants to think that there is more to life than taking out the trash, just as I did at his age, and of course there is; even so, there is honor in fulfilling the small everyday tasks of life, not so easy, as it turns out.

      And yes, I’ll be the first to spread the word when his poem is published. Best wishes, J

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