By Ron Kokish
I met Niki when I was 21. She was 19. She enjoyed our first date, so when I asked her to a toga party the following week, she said yes. Then she had second thoughts. “A toga party? At a frat house? Ugh!”
She decided to back out, but her mother leaned on her. I was a nice guy. My feelings would be hurt. She had promised, and it was wrong to back out. Niki’s kid sister agreed with Mom and said she’d stand in for Niki as a clothing dummy during toga creation. Niki didn’t back out.
Six months later, Niki and I were looking at furniture ads in the Sunday paper when her mother walked in and said, “Looks like you kids plan to get married.” (It was a statement, not a question.) We had fantasized about it, but planning? Not hardly! We didn’t plan much of anything back then.
“We’ve talked about it,” I replied lamely. Niki’s mother called out to her husband, “Irving, the kids are getting married!” I don’t remember the ensuing conversation, but Niki and I are celebrating our 59th wedding anniversary this month.
Fast forward two years: I hated my middle-school teaching job and had no real plans, but my best friend and his wife were at Rutgers University and loving graduate-student housing for families. We visited frequently and it looked like fun — kind of a summer camp for immature married people. We wanted to live there too.
We were already a family so all we had to do was become graduate students. Lyndon Johnson had recently declared war on poverty, and the government was throwing money at people who would become social workers. During college, I’d had fun at part-time jobs, working (playing?) with teenagers in settlement houses, where I mostly liked my social worker bosses. Off we went to summer camp on the government’s dime.
Five years, two children and three jobs later, I was licensing foster homes in Concord, California, and was thoroughly bored with it. I applied for a different job in rural Humboldt County, which I thought would be equally boring, but at least we’d be living in the country.
As we were eating dinner one Sunday evening, Dave Kelly, Humboldt’s welfare director who was to interview me on Wednesday afternoon, called to tell me his plans had changed. Could he see me the following morning instead? Sure! Then he said he needed to be in Sacramento by 8, so I should be at his motel by 6 a.m. I have never been a morning person.
When I arrived, sleepy and still stunned, Dave did not have the decency to offer me coffee. Instead, he said, “You have a degree in social work, so I know you can talk psychobabble. Let’s see if you can talk English. A client has taken your advice to track her spending with a checking account. Explain to her how to balance her checkbook.” Instantly, I decided I wanted to work for this man. I didn’t care what the job was. I wanted to work for Dave Kelly.
Dave hired me, Niki and I bought the only rundown house we could afford, and I worked for Humboldt County for 15 years, becoming an expert in child sexual abuse along the way. Then I worked as an independent expert for another 22 years. My work was never boring again. I loved it. We raised two children and helped raise two grandchildren in that house.
The point of these stories is that the two most important things in my life, family and career, turned out well due to decisions made at critical moments that I didn’t recognize as critical. Sometimes I didn’t even make the decision.
Niki’s mother and sister persuaded her to go to a toga party. We looked at furniture ads on a particular Sunday morning. A friend went to graduate school, and we joined him because it seemed like summer camp. (It was.) We became social workers because scholarships were easy to get. I enjoyed a fascinating career based on child sexual abuse because I wanted to move to the country and was able to explain how to balance a checkbook while I was still half-asleep.
I blundered into happiness and success. I was somewhat prepared, of course, by character and education, but a lot of big decisions were made in small moments, they weren’t necessarily made by me, and when I did make them, I often made them for reasons that had nothing to do with how things eventually turned out.
The late Barbara Walters once conducted a series of interviews with leaders in their fields who were happy in their careers. She concluded that they had one thing in common: none of them had planned those careers. All of them had simply pursued their interests. Parents, if you pray for your children, pray for them to get lucky in small moments while they are following their hearts.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative