On Being Ordinary

October 30, 2009 | 34 comments

She thinks she’s ordinary.

She grew up on an ordinary farm, with an ordinary family, here in ordinary, corn-covered Iowa. She’s never scaled a mountain, or dug wells in Tanzania or worked for a Fortune 500 company. Only once did she hold a paying job, and that was before she was married.

She tried college, but dropped out after the first year, overwhelmed by the large campus and its big-scale expectations. “That was one of my first failures in life.”

Yes, she says, she’s just … ordinary.

I shook my head. No, not ordinary at all, I demanded. And I asked her: Would she please come to my class to talk to the 21 aspiring writers I teach?

She asked me: What kind of story would they come up with for a 70-year-old woman from Iowa?

Just come, I said. You’ll see.

She’s anything but ordinary. For this woman pulses with extra-ordinary.

I should know: The woman is my mother.

In journalism class this week, I’m teaching students about “news profiles” — these stories where personalities come to life in portraits painted with word-pictures.

I told my students that the most important part of a profile is this: finding someone with a compelling story to share. Words flashed up on the big screen behind me, as I clicked through the first three categories of “potential profile subjects”:

Famous people.

But, I told them, there’s more. Everyone has a story to tell. God has written a story onto each of our hearts. If we only look for stories in the people with names like Guggenheim and Rockefeller, we’ll miss the extraordinary story in the common man.

I turned to the screen and clicked a final time to show them my favorite category of all: “Ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

“This,” I told them, “is where you’ll find the best stories of all.” These walking portraits are all around us in the drive-through, the checkout lane, the back pew of the church. What might we find out if we put the brakes on our racing world, to stop and talk to people beyond the 140 characters of Twitter, the shorthand of a text message, the brushing past of one another in a grocery aisle, avoiding even simple eye contact?

If we asked the questions, what might we discover underneath?

I’ve done a hundred or more profiles on politicians, notorious criminals, businessmen and bureaucrats. But my favorite profile subjects will likely never set foot in a glassed office on Wall Street.

Perhaps these students might seek voices of the ordinary people: the ones who serve them at the campus dining hall. The ones who clean every toilet — every day — in their classroom dormitories. The ones who cut their hair, scan their groceries, stamp their mail.

“And now, class,” I told them yesterday morning. “I have a very special woman I’d like you to meet. This is my mother.”


Mom spent 30 minutes in front of the class of probing — but polite — journalists.

She told them how she married her high school sweetheart and had four babies. She told them about her cancer battle and how she has a hard time climbing stairs these days.

In a few minutes, with just a few questions, we peeled back layers.

And as I tap away at these keys this morning, tears run down this reporter’s cheeks as I tell just a bit of her extraordinary story. I’d like to introduce you to my Mom:


Sioux Center, Iowa — Most folks who know Caryl Dukes call her Mama D. Which means that pretty much everyone calls her Mama D.

Because Mama D. doesn’t know a stranger.

She strikes up conversations with store clerks and salesmen. Most folks cross to the other side of the street to avoid the severely disabled, the homeless, the drunks.

Not Mama D. She sees people.

Caryl Dukes has invested a life in serving others. She has logged unmeasured hours in nursing homes, visiting the elderly. She maintains a file of greeting cards to send to the lonely. She tells them she’s praying — and she does.

And Mama D. makes people laugh. Oh, does she make people laugh.

She once wore a wrinkly old-woman mask into a meeting that her husband (my father) was holding with auditors. Even today, she has a mask in her suitcase, for you never know when you might need to put on a silly mask to make someone smile.

She’s a cancer survivor whose steps have been slowed by her battle with the disease. She has some trouble walking and takes staircase-steps this way: left, left, right, right.

But Mama D. shows no signs of slowing. She celebrated her 70th birthday and 50th wedding anniversary this summer. And she told 21 journalism students a bit about her life on a Thursday morning in a college classroom.

“I’m an ordinary person that’s lived a pretty ordinary life. I haven’t gone somewhere or saved a lot of hungry people that you might read about,” she told them. “But I like walking with Him anyway, even if my gait is pretty slow.”

And these students? I think they saw what I saw. They saw the woman underneath, a woman whose heart pulses with a God-story all her own.

They sat at their screens, and tapped keys to compose stories discovered in an “ordinary” mama.

One of them wrote this: “Caryl Dukes recounted what she considers an ordinary life — when it is actually anything but.”

Anything but ordinary. That is each of us, you know. Anything but ordinary.
We are walking portraits of grace, each with one-of-a-kind God-stories written on our hearts.

And Mom? I’m so glad you shared your story, and so grateful that God let me be a part of it.


It is ingrained in us that we have to do
exceptional things for God
— but we do not.
We have to be exceptional
in the ordinary things of life,
and holy on the ordinary streets,
among ordinary people.
— Oswald Chambers

Photos: Mom, at age 5.
Mom, dressed as Cruella DaVille.
Mama D., wearing one of two Hawaiian hakus given to her by the Tongan people at a Methodist church she and Dad attend every January. She received one of the hakus as a gift after volunteering to play piano when the church was without a pianist one Sunday.

by | October 30, 2009 | 34 comments


  1. Shirley

    What an inspiring read! Thank you for once again allowing me to see that 'ordinary' is wonderful! My blog title is Sketches of a Common Life, born from a quote from The Notebook that really set me free. I realized then that being ordinary was OK, and you've shown it again this morning!

    My husband grew up with a woman living beside them who would be called 'ordinary'. She was a SAHM before that was even a coined term. But she was heavily involved in her church. She always invited new members over for Sunday dinner. She and the children baked dozens upon dozens of cookies at Christmas, filling shoeboxes with them for luck recipients. And the list of her activities would be a long one. When she died, the procession of cars following her to her final resting place was the longest I had ever seen and have yet to see! She impacted that many people, even in her ordinary life.

    And how charming is your mother!!!

  2. Lyla Lindquist

    I knew she was amazing.

    I just knew it.

  3. elizabeth

    Thank you for the beautiful reminder to really SEE the people in our lives.

  4. jasonS

    I absolutely love hearing people's stories. It's fascinating to me and touches me in a deep way. My heart was very warmed to hear about such an extraordinary life. Thanks Jennifer and thanks Mama D. My favorite was the very end, that they visit the same church every January and she played the piano for them. That touched me- everywhere we go there is opportunity for relationship. You simply never know until you try…

    PS I included one of your posts in my favorites list this week. Thanks for all the great work! Blessings.

  5. Denise @ A Sacred Longing

    Anything but ordinary…if we all could only see that our Creator forms only the extraordinary how different would our lives be lived – our stories be told!

    Your mom is beautiful and I thank you for sharing her with us!


  6. Rosslyn Elliott

    Beautiful character sketch! Thanks for letting us into your life in this way.

  7. patty

    I love your mom…thanks for sharing her with us 🙂
    That is also one of my favorit OC quotes of all time!!
    Have a blessed day, Jennifer!

  8. isumom

    Mama D…there are no words for someone such as me, who is not a gifted writer like you, to describe her. She is far beyond ordinary…

  9. RCUBEs

    A rare gem…given from above! Beautiful, heartwarming…Thank you for sharing…God bless your mom and continue to give her strength!

  10. ~*Michelle*~

    What a blessing this was to read….thank you so much for sharing your mom, Mama D with us.

    can I tell you how blessed your students are to have you as an instructor? I can see how you love what you do!

  11. Jackie


    So wonderful to learn of your "ordinary" mom. I too have an "ordinary" mom who will be 91 years old in March….How blessed we are to have moms that live their ordinary lives in such "extra-ordinary" ways!

    Thank you for sharing!

    Sweet Blessings!

  12. Mary

    Jennifer: Your blog is so inspiring and SO wonderful, I love your zest and your boldness. I am adding a bit more BOLD to my own blog, It is SO important to share the gospel with people and speak the truth: GOD DOES have a story written out for us and eternity written on our hearts. Thanks for spreading the love of Jesus, and I love seeing your comments on my posts!

  13. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought

    I love that Chambers quote.

    Pulsing with story. That is how I want to be described someday.

    Jennifer, what a tribute and honor to your mother. She raised a loving, kind, talented daughter. I enjoyed reading how you peeled away the layers of her life and in doing so, you uplifted her.
    ~ Wendy

  14. Anne L.B.

    Mama D. doesn't know a stranger… She sees people.

    You hooked me right away. I love her already.

    (will you tell her there's a sister named anne who looks forward to meeting her? you think she could get away with bringing that wig to Heaven?)

  15. Jennifer

    So nice to "meet" your mom. I figured there was a legacy of faith somewhere in your family. In Christ, the ordinary IS the extraordinary.

  16. Deidra

    Oh my Lord I loved this. So many of us trying to hard to shine so brightly on our own and here's your mom, shining steadily and making such a difference for so many. This is the second story about a mom that I've read today, and the second to touch me deeply.

    Your mom is a blessing. You are her legacy.

  17. Shawn

    Beautiful story about a beautiful woman. You inspire me with your writing Jennifer.

  18. christy rose

    Beautiful story Jennifer! What a blessing for your students to have you for a teacher!! You are an extraordinary ordinary writer who loves Jesus and sees the world through His eyes!!!

  19. Rose

    I knew I should have brought my kleenex. I feel as though I know your mother too after the lovely description and photos. She sounds like a delight to be around. Thank you for sharing her with us!

  20. Beth.. One Blessed Nana

    Another great post. Gives a new meaning to the word ordinary.

  21. notsofastbook

    What a beautiful tribute, and a wonderful lesson for your class. Everyone has a story! So important–our lives can be so much richer if we approach everyone with the anticipation of discovering their life story!

    Ann Kroeker/Not So Fast

  22. Bina @ Bina's Pad

    What a beautiful woman your mother is…both inside and out. You can tell she is beautiful…even from here…simply by the way you write her. She simply is who she is and in so being, radiates His overwhelming charm. Thank you for this wonderful tribute, as it made me think of my own mother…and for striking me when I wasn't ready in a place I didn't know was still sensitive. With my own tears streaming, I thank you for the simple reminder that being HIS makes me beautiful. 🙂
    So much love…

  23. papa&nanaT

    Oh how true, she is anything but ordinary! She reminds me of my mom too. It was awesome of you to write this for her to read and be blessed by today. So many times we wish we would have said those things and never did. A mothers love is so big and so wide and so deep, next thing to Gods love isn't it? Your girls will be writing about you someday with that same love as you did about my dear friend Mama D.

  24. papa&nanaT

    Oh how true, she is anything but ordinary! She reminds me of my mom too. It was awesome of you to write this for her to read and be blessed by today. So many times we wish we would have said those things and never did. A mothers love is so big and so wide and so deep, next thing to Gods love isn't it? Your girls will be writing about you someday with that same love as you did about my dear friend Mama D.

  25. Lyla Lindquist

    Papa&NanaT is on to something . . . wonder what those girls will say about their mom.

    Sounds like a good writing assignment for one of these days. (Not a late-for-school-can't-find-my-favorite-coat kind of day, but 'bout an Anna and Lydia Guest Post sometime?)

    I have a hunch they like you a little bit . . .

  26. Triumphant Victorious Reminders Copyright © 2009

    Wow! I ran across your blog from a comment you posted on Heavenly Humor's blog. I am so glad that I 'stopped by'.
    Beautiful story of God's beautiful grace!
    I have tears streaming down my face (the streaming won't stop…thank you for the 'reminder' of the souls that we pass by and that pass by us daily.
    Life Life and Love Abundantly!

  27. elaine @ peace for the journey

    Makes me think about the exceptional people that have filled my life… those who engage with life and with people; not because they have to but rather because they cannot help themselves but to. Thank you for introducing us to Mama D. I think she and I would have a great time together.

    I bet being you student would be a blast! You have a wealth of wisdom, friend.


  28. Charity Singleton

    Your mama certainly isn't ordinary. What a great way to share both your mother's story, and YOUR story with your students. Bless you and your family today.

  29. Cherie

    She had to be amazing. Of course she did. That's how there was you!

    Thank you Jesus, for Jennife's mom. Thank you for using her in such amazing ways for so many people that she would have a moniker like "Mama D." Thank you for letting her be Jennifer's real Mama, the results are incredible.

  30. Laura

    an extra-ordinary woman indeed.

    sounds like she listens well. to others, and to HIM.

    a beautiful tribute to your mom. i think the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

  31. Elizabeth Mahlou

    You are fortunate to have had such a mother. And you honor her by the way you write about her.

  32. LisaShaw

    Oh my goodness I can barely type this for tears. Mamma D is amazing. She's ordinary with the extraordinary JESUS touch upon her life.

    I was so blessed to read this dear sister. Thank you for sharing your precious Mamma with us. I'm SO glad I came by today.

    Love and hugs.

  33. Doug Spurling

    "But I like walking with Him anyway, even if my gait is pretty slow."

    The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

    God bless Mama D. – Winning the race by taking her time.

  34. Graceful

    Jennifer, I love this story! It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by the poet Ted Kooser, who says he writes about "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary." I had a similar conversation with my dad this past weekend, who claimed he had "no story to tell." "Everyone has a story," I told him, and your story about your mom proves just that. Thank you.


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