Who and what are Accidental Mentors?
"Accidental Mentors: Inspirational Stories of Women Who Shaped My Life by Just Being Themselves" is a micro-memoir series to appreciate those who shaped my life and inspire others to remember theirs.
Turning sixty-five is a milestone after which you can no longer claim, believably, at least, that you’re still middle-aged. Your life suddenly screams OLD, especially once your new red, white, and blue Medicare card arrives to remind you that you are “of an age.” Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, you become one of the vulnerable: a senior citizen who must be protected rather than the one who runs to everyone else’s aid. Various friends have died over the years from natural causes, and you wonder, on an increasingly regular basis, how much time you have left. Will it be ten years? Twenty? Will you be one who reaches the ranks of centenarians? Do you want to be?
As I turned sixty-five three years ago, these realities caused me to reflect on the people who have supported me, loved me, taught me, and challenged me throughout the years I’ve been on this planet. For reasons of choice and circumstance, most of these people have been women. From the very beginning of my life on 5/5/55, I’ve had the privilege of knowing incredible women who I’ve looked to for inspiration, hope, and love. Their strength, compassion, determination, and drive have compelled me to be better, to be more than I ever thought I could be.
In the 1980s, singer/songwriter/activist Holly Near introduced a song called “Something About the Women,” a song that soon became a lesbian anthem. I believe it was one the first songs in the history of the known world to honor women, not for our beauty and sex appeal, but for ourselves, in all our complexities.
I look to you, I look to you for courage in my life.
And I promise it's not just foolish idolatry
That makes me gaze at you in wonder.
Oh, there’s something about the women,
There’s something about the women,
Something about the women
Something about the women in my life.
The chorus says so much about how I feel about each of the women I selected for this collection. If you’ve never heard the song or want to be reminded of it, you can find it here: Something About the Women.
It’s for these reasons, as I passed the sixty-fifth-year milestone and began the journey into elderhood, I decided to honor sixty-five women who I’ve looked to for courage in my life, women who have made me who I am.
The Selection Process
As I began this project, I wondered if I could come up with sixty-five women who had taught me something. As I started making the list, I found that narrowing it to sixty-five women was my biggest challenge. I suddenly wished I were older, seventy or seventy-five, or even a hundred, so I wouldn’t have to leave anyone out. I made choices of which women to include based on whether I could name a way in which I was different for having known her. In some cases, that was easy. In others, it required deep reflection to understand how their presence in my life changed me.
Some of the women on the list are no longer in my life—a few by my choice, a few by theirs, a few as the result of time and distance, and a few because they have already left this life behind. Fifteen women on my list have died--two as children, the others at various stages of life from young adulthood through old age. Four have died since I began this project, which created an urgency in me to get this finished. Each death touched me deeply, and I miss them every day. They are the ancestors I call on for guidance and resilience.
This project has been more emotional to write than I expected it to be. As I centered my attention on each woman, memories of places we spent time together, meals we shared, adventures we enjoyed, and work we did came flooding back. I reminisced about our experiences—some pleasurable and some painful—and all of them unique to our specific relationship. As I wrote about each woman, I found myself laughing, crying, and always feeling immensely grateful for the times we’ve shared.
Even twenty years into the 21st century, only a fragment of women’s stories live in libraries, museums, and other collections. Biographers have started writing more about women previously ignored by history—women such as Christine Darden, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan who Margot Lee Shetterly introduced us to in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and Lisa Mundy’s Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. These, however, represent only a fraction of the biographical material currently available to readers, the vast majority of which centers on men’s lives. It’s long past time for women to be recognized for their contributions to the world. This project is a small step in that direction.
When I described to another writer what I was working on, she wrote it off as a tribute piece, not worthy of serious consideration. That may be. I never intended this to be a great literary piece. Instead, I envisioned that this project might inspire its readers to think about their own “hidden figures”—women who go about living their lives never expecting to be acknowledged for the influence they have on those they touch.
My goal in sharing these stories and reflections is to remind us that we are but a collection of interactions, influences, and inspirations. My hope is that in reading these short pieces, you will be reminded of how important each interaction we have is—that just like a monarch butterfly laying eggs on a milkweed plant, what you leave behind is just as important as what you take with you.
Only a couple of the women contained here could be considered public figures. The others move through life unrecognized for their influence, even if they are indispensable to those who depend on them.
It is these women to whom I pay tribute. They are beatitudes in my life who have bestowed upon me blessings beyond measure.
Ever Widening Circles
As you might expect, the first circle of women in my life from my earliest years consists mostly of family and family friends. As I grew up, friends, teachers, mentors, co-workers, and eventually, lovers entered the widening circles of my life.
One person on the list is someone I never met, someone who died before I was born. Still, her influence on my life has been profound, so I had no choice but to include her.
Another person on the list, and only one, knew me from the moment I was born. She, of course, was my mother. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll start with where I was in the 1950s and the next day with my mother.
Read Accidental Mentors
Here’s the complete Table of Contents:
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