Averyell A. Kessler
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Mills asked. I was sitting in her first-grade classroom on the first floor of Power School’s antediluvian building. Her question caused an immediate response and a wave of hands shot up.
“A fireman!” Tommy called out. That made sense. We had just visited the downtown fire station, climbed on ladder trucks, rung bells, and glided down the long brass pole. The girls went first so the boys would not see our underpants as our fluttering skirts ballooned and put on a show.
“A nurse,” Carolyn yelled. She sat right beside me. “But I won’t give children shots!” Good deal, I thought.
Many of my male classmates answered policeman, cowboy, airplane pilot. Henry shouted “orfadonis”. His father was a dentist. The girls said nurse or teacher, two of the few occupations available to women in those days. I said nothing. I’d never thought about it.
That night I told my mother about Mrs. Mills’ question and my inability to answer.
“Well, have you decided?” she asked.’
“Yes,” I announced. “I want to be a princess, a ballerina, or a majorette.” Mama swallowed her laughter and remained calm.
“You can’t be all three at the same time,” she replied. An excellent impromptu answer. After she offered a simplistic description of the British monarchy, she explained that dancing and twirling required lessons and lots of practice. The next day she purchased a baton at Morgan and Lindsey and enrolled me in Gladys Velsor’s School of Dance. Yippee. My lessons began on the top floor of Mrs. Velsor’s small brick house on North Jefferson Street. It was August; there was no air conditioning. Dusty sunlight poured through open windows filling the room with hot, pollen drenched air. A giant Maine Coon cat named Poncho Gonzales lurked under her windup phonograph, switching his tail, and waiting to pounce. It was a lethal brew for a child with allergies. I sneezed and coughed myself out of the class, and my plans cannonballed into the Pearl River. At least princess had already been eliminated.
The same what’s next questions popped up again when I was a senior in high school, as if I’d formed a complete life plan at the age of eighteen. What do you want to do when you graduate? Are you going to college? Have you chosen a major? That’s when Donald and the zipper factory emerged. (Caveat – this is not the title of a children’s picture book). Coming from a small school in south Mississippi, Donald stepped into the complicated social drama of Murrah High School. He was a young man with a purpose and a certain blueprint for the future. As his father before him, he wanted to be the manager of a zipper factory in his hometown. We laughed at first, but everybody liked the newcomer and we remembered that zippers were an important part of life – especially in gym glass, the senior prom or the backseat of a parked car. Still, Donald had a plan. I did not. I began to worry.
Simmering the back of my mind was a life mimicking my mother’s career of child raising, the PTA, bridge clubs and volunteer community service. College and law school eliminated those plans, and new ones marched in. Life galloped along and years passed. That’s when Robert Burns appeared, murmuring his famous quote. “The best laid schemes o’mice an’men, gang aft a-gley.” In translation, no matter how carefully you plan, bombs explode when you least expect them. I clearly remember when my best laid plans went awry.
It was late on a Friday afternoon and another busy week in my law firm was ending. Winter darkness was closing in and the clock on my desk ticked off slo-mo minutes. Without warning, my long-ignored passion for writing charged into my office and shook me awake. “Pack up,” she said, her deep sable eyes boring into mine. “We’re outta here!” Boom! It was an atomic bomb explosion and the results were predictable. After 25 years, I’d had my fill of the careful, rigid language of law. I no longer wished to spend another day in meetings with a person who dabbed on Grecian Formula hair coloring and was as amusing as a cement mixer. I wanted to write about the five glorious minutes I spent trapped in a stalled elevator with Paul Newman. (He was just as scared as I was). I longed to tell the story of my grandfather releasing a pack of hunting dogs in the banquet room of the Robert E. Lee Hotel. I wanted to describe the old friend who winked and whispered, “I always drink vodka in the evening, especially when I have to take up the collection at the revival. Nobody knows a thing!” In an instant, my plans became confetti.
Last year, another bomb exploded, and we all landed in a hot mess of trouble. Suddenly, the future[ak1] was as hazy as early morning fog, and best laid plans melted faster than butter on a hot griddle. It seems to be ending now, but I’m wondering what’s next. Perhaps the best question is not what you are going to do, but who are you going to be? The answer is easy – myself.
Here’s some encouragement from Cy Coleman’s hit Broadway musical Seesaw. It makes me smile. The lyrics were written by Dorothy Fields. The music by Mr. Coleman.
It’s not where you start, its where your finish.
It’s not how you go, but how you land
A hundred to one shot, they call him a klutz
Can out-run the favorite, all he needs is the guts
Your final return will not diminish
And you can be the cream of the crop
It’s not where you start, but where you finish
And you’re gonna finish on top.