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”:
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:
Headline: AN EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
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