7 Essential Life Lessons
“I think you’d look good in commercials.” ~ Ann Ryan
My break into acting came at an early age from someone who believed in me. Although I didn’t become an actor as an adult, my life was shaped through essential life lessons from an extraordinary family friend, Ann Ryan. I am in part because she was.
is a beautiful concept that originated in South Africa, noted as early as 1846, and defined by many as; “a person is a person through other people”. Most people use this shorter expression:
“I am Because You Are.”
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu described the culture of Ubuntu: “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world”.
The concept of Ubuntu shines through my life experiences with a dear family friend, Ann Ryan, who recently died. ‘I am’ in part because of who she was. There are stories worth telling and hers is one.
Ann lived knowing her purpose, moved with courage through difficult choices and was fiercely committed to her family and friends. She was a fighter, surviving a breast cancer diagnosis many years. In the book of life she is one of the champions. She believed in me. Through our connection I learned life lessons that shaped who I am today.
Life Lessons . . .
While I was growing up in a West Toledo neighborhood, the Ryan’s moved into a house down the street from us. When just a few feet separate houses, things can go either way. Fortunately, the connections in our neighborhood were mostly congenial, save for a few crabby neighbors. It was the late 60’s, Saigon had not yet fallen, and several windows displayed stars representing family members who were serving in the war. We all knew the faces behind the stars. Ann and my Mom had young sons the same age, so their friendship started through their children’s connection. Tom, Ann’s husband, worked for a promotions agency that had an account with McDonalds. Ann saw something in my that I did not see myself. She thought I’d be good on TV. She gave me my first shot at stardom, acting in commercial for McDonald’s sippy dipper, a straw in the shape of McDonald’s arches. In addition to winning local fame, I made $25 dollars, more than any kool-aid stand I had ever run.
Not long after we met the Ryan’s, they adopted a beautiful baby girl. I was her devoted babysitter and on sunny days I spent countless hours strolling her down the sidewalks of our street, side-by-side with my friend Terry. He and I, both around age 8, would pretend we were married and proud parents of this baby girl. What a sight we must have been – me – hands tightly controlling the stroller – him – parading beside me twirling an umbrella in the sunshine. Terry and I bonded during our short marriage. We decided to watch each other go to the bathroom because that’s what married people do. It was a symbolic act of our commitment to each other. Terry was more feminine and flamboyant than me, hence the umbrella without the rain. He was my first gay friend. Sadly, Terry died during the AIDS epidemic.
Sometimes I’d babysit while Ann did house chores. Like a mother hen, I’d sit loyally beside her baby girl on the couch. On one occasion, the baby decided she would practice rolling over. My hands caught her just before she hit the floor. Ann kindly said I probably saved her life. I believed it.
A couple years passed and my resume grew with adventures of baby-sitting that included more heroic acts and even another McDonalds commercial; this time for a “double-cheese please”.
Then one day I learned the shocking news that the Ryans were moving away from Toledo to Phoenix, Arizona to seek out better job opportunities. Nobody I knew did that. They stayed put and complained. My heart broke when they left. Their baby girl was the object of much of my affection. But, under that grief something happened; their decision helped me to understand how change can hold hope and possibility.
A year later I found myself on my first plane trip because of Ann. After a short flight to the Chicago airport, our family switched planes for a fateful flight to Phoenix, Arizona to see the Ryans. We were in the air thirty minutes when the pilot announced that our main engine was out. He quickly came back on the intercom to apologize for the inadvertent announcement. I guess he didn’t know the intercom was live. Too late! The passengers were in an uproar. The woman next to me got out her rosary and started her “Hail Mary’s” only to pause intermittently to bemoan our sure demise and her decision to fly again after the last flight she had taken twenty years ago had an emergency landing. I found myself comforting her.
On solid ground in Phoenix, life was sweeter after our harrowing in-air drama. During the vacation we travelled to Mexico for a day trip to Nogales. I’d been to Canada before, but I considered this trip to be my real first foreign country experience since they spoke a different language. It stirred a lifelong curiosity about languages and travel.
Following our vacation, I didn’t see Ann until more than twenty years later when I finally made it back to Arizona. Her wide smile, easy laugh and courage were ever present. She was a cancer survivor for many years.
I will always remember Ann; this one person who taught me many life lessons and an inspiration for the single best decision I have ever made, to adopt my two beloved children.
Mindful Writing Practice:
Our treasured connections can affect us in profound ways. Today, write about someone who taught a life lesson to you.