Take a look around you. In your everyday life, your work life, your social life, who’s watching you? Your child? A co-worker? The young man bagging your groceries? The young woman ringing you out at the department store? Every single day, and at many moments throughout the day, we have the opportunity, known or unknown, to mentor someone, be it for a life time or but a brief moment.
There are four specific women who I have been blessed to have as mentors. Each one in their own way has opened my eyes to the possibilities of my life, to the rewards of persevering even if when you want to quit, of obtaining a dream that seemed out reach.
Marlene Birnie came into my life in November 1987, a few short months after I married and moved to Humboldt County. I had begun working as a receptionist in my first law office in October, and Marlene was hired about a month later as the secretary to Attorney John Davis. Since John’s office was directly off the reception area, Marlene was given the desk behind mine. I was 21 years old, newly married, living in a new town eight hours from my family, new job, and no friends. I cannot recall every little detail, but it wasn’t long before Marlene befriended me and became not only a surrogate mother but a good friend. Always quick to laugh and share a joke, she was a stronghold for me during some very hard times. With no family at the ready, I turned to Marlene often during my year of working with her, and many times since, for her level-headed and thoughtful advice. When my mother died, Marlene’s steadfastness and compassion helped pull me through a treacherous storm. I am sure she never considered herself as being a mentor, but she was. I learned from her the importance of being truly present when a person is in need; of not just offering verbal support, but a shoulder, an ear; of allowing people to have their hurts and pains, while at the same time letting them know that when they are ready I will be there. Thank you, Momma-Seeta.
Catherine Culver came to work at our office first as a temp for me while I was on vacation. Upon my return, her temporary position was turned into a full time position, and thus began what I know will be a life-long friendship. We complimented each other in so many ways during the time we worked together, each not minding certain jobs and duties that the other couldn’t stand. It was a great partnership. Without a doubt, Catherine is the reason I am where I am today with regard to my profession and that I have accomplished so many goals. She is the consummate professional, and from Day One, intentionally or unintentionally, began developing in me a desire to become a better legal secretary. It was Catherine who encouraged me to study with her for the CCLS exam, along with four other members of our association. It is Catherine who told me, “Yes, you can do it!” when I was asked to run for president of our association, and then provided me with much needed support and experienced advice in her capacity as governor and a board member. It was Catherine who applauded and encouraged my decision to run for governor of our association, and it was Catherine who continued that encouragement when I was considering the position of LSS Probate/Estate Planning Section Leader.
Catherine not only instilled in me a desire to continue improving myself professionally, but also showed me the importance of looking professional, as well. She is the one who, without words, made me understand that if you want to be treated professionally, then you must dress the part, and that first impressions are important. If you were to walk into an office and see two equally competent secretaries standing before you, but one is dressed in slacks and a blouse and the other in jeans and a cotton pullover, who would you most like turn to for assistance? Who would you think is more competent and knowledgeable? I will forever be grateful for the impact she has left on my life. Thank you, Friend.
I met Denise Lopes through the CCLS study group in which I was encouraged by Catherine to participate. Our friendship developed slowly within the group, but blossomed over the past couple of years when we began traveling together to Conference, she as LSI Historian for Mary Rocca, and me as governor of our association. Denise is a small but mighty force. She will defend you to the end, but will also, in her quiet way, let you know when perhaps the decisions you are making or the actions you are taking are not the most prudent. Not one to speak out of turn, she quietly observes and gives grounded, well thought out advice when asked, and I have turned to her often for that advice. I have learned much from Denise about guarding one’s tongue and really, truly thinking before opening one’s mouth. She, too, has taught me much about being a true professional, as well as nurtured my desire to continue to improve myself in my profession, and has helped guide me to an understanding of, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” She has been a very calming presence in the midst of some stormy times in my life these last few years, and she has taught me the true meaning of friendship. Thank you, Miss Denise.
Last, but most assuredly not least, is my mother, Yualene Gleason. Words cannot begin to describe this truly remarkable woman. Although not diagnosed until a number of years later, my mother became afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, along with at least two other types of arthritis, at approximately age 22 after having two children she was told she could never have. For years I watched this disease wreak havoc on her body, put her through unimaginable, agonizing pain. Through it all, her one goal, her one desire was to protect her children, to not let the disease rob my brother and me of our mother, and when she had grandchildren, rob them of their grandma. She was a woman of unwavering faith in her religious belief, and never once did I hear her ask, “Why me?” Through surgeries, infections, hospitalizations, tortured and twisted hands and feet, my mother bore her pain and suffering with grace and dignity.
Over the years, many people have expressed to my family that it was my mother’s grace, dignity, selflessness, and compassion toward others that helped them through their own times of trials and tribulations. But to me, her most selfless act came the day I married. A few short weeks before, she had had surgery on both feet to fix a horribly painful condition called hammer toes. The surgeon broke both of her feet from the arches down, cut the tendons to straight the toes, then inserted pins through ends of her toes into her feet to hold everything in place. These pins stuck out of her toes by approximately 2 inches. On the day of my wedding, while being walked down the aisle by my brother, the incisions on both of her big toes split open. It wasn’t until my husband and I had left our reception a few hours later that she told my dad she needed to go home because she was in so much pain. She did not say anything sooner, lest she somehow mar my wedding day.
My mother died in 1989 when I was 23 years old, just as we were embarking on a new, and what I am sure would have been a wonderful, adult mother/daughter relationship. To this day, I feel the hole that her passing has left in my life. However, in the short 23 years we had together, she taught me the true meaning of humanity, compassion and love, and to never give up no matter the obstacles or the pain. As I write this, I am about to embark upon my first 50k ultra trail run. 31.06 miles. A distance my mother could never have comprehended being able to walk, let alone run. I will cross that finish line because of her, I will cross that finish line for her.
All four of these women - my mom, Marlene, Catherine, and Denise - have touched my life, been my mentors, mostly, I am sure, unintentionally. I am honored to have them in my life, and to each of them, I will forever be grateful and thankful.
Every day we have the opportunity, knowingly or unknowingly, to mentor someone, be it for a life time or but a brief moment. Take a look around you. In your life, who’s watching you?
(Written in April 2008, submitted to and published by The Legal Secretary Magazine)