I drove home a new way on Sunday after services and noticed the bright blue sign of a Napa Auto Parts Store. It was the first one I actually remember seeing in Tucson. Part of me doubted that it could possibly be the only one, so I googled it to see how many there are in town. One. There’s only one. Huh.
The reason it caught my eye, I think, is because my mom worked in one for nearly a decade while my brother attended the lower grades of public school. She was of the generation who fiercely believed that moms needed to be home when their kids got home from school, so she wanted a part-time job where she could do that. I never could figure out how my mom worked in an auto parts store, since her interest in car parts was negligible. Honestly, it was non-existent.
As I pondered this, driving across town, what came to me was an awareness of what her expertise actually was. She was the undeniably, unstoppably, irreplaceably queen of customer service. People mattered to her. After my brother was old enough to drive himself home from football practice, my mom got a job working full-time at the photo lab on the airbase near where they lived. She served as the film librarian; her primary job was to interact with the customers and make sure they got exactly the service or the product they needed. People would stop by her desk all the time for hugs, and to take a piece of candy out of the candy dish on the corner of her desk that was always full. She kept that job for the next 40+ years and was still happily working when she became terminally ill; she could not imagine not being there to take care of ‘her people’.
I retired from my technical career at 52. She and I would often talk about how odd it was that her daughter retired before she did. I kept telling her that it was really obvious to me when it was time for me to stop working (at that job) and that she would know when it was time, and to retire any sooner would be silly. That seemed to satisfy her, mostly. There were times that she wished she could be a retired grandma and do the craft activities, the outings, or the book studies, with the old, retired ladies. When it got right down to it, she didn’t believe that she would feel as vital and alive if she didn’t have to answer to an alarm clock 5 days a week. So she kept doing what she loved – connecting with people.
There’s something about pleasant human interactions that adds brightness and liveliness to our days. Social scientists say we need a certain number of hugs each day to be emotionally healthy – four at a minimum. When I was working on last Wednesday night’s class on Mysticism, I was reminded that the need to connect with others is a basic human survival need. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it ranks just slightly above the need to feel safe, and just below the need to feel respected or esteemed.
“People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” — James Baldwin
When I first saw this quote by James Baldwin, I thought of it as a negative commentary, but the more that I pondered the lifestyle that my mom chose, this idea remained quite valid and uplifting. She was the undisputed queen of making people feel important, no matter who, and no matter what. Even on Sundays and with the youth ministry at church, she was the first of the women to be given a plaque that read, “Mother of Our Youth”. I always thought the plaque was a little disconcerting, but it recognized the identity she had created for herself, and how she wanted to be seen in her world.
It seems I picked up just a smidge of that connecting mindset myself. I’m OK with that.
— Rev Janis