Perseverance, perspective, determination, the need to clean up your own messes and confront your own problems, no matter how difficult. Above all, resilience. And the importance of realizing how much you have, even when "much" feels like nothing.
One evening when I was eight years old, my mother and I drove the four miles home from my babysitter's house in darkness, a pouty silence on my side. I felt tired of getting up early, getting home late, and staying with babysitters for hours on end. I felt tired of joint custody and tired of dealing with a difficult father. So I punctured the quiet of our drive by complaining to my mother, who had awakened at 6:00 a.m. to get me ready and out the door before working a thankless day handling unhappy customers' calls at the telephone company. I vented in a childish stream of frustration about how hard our lives were compared to the handful of friends I knew who belonged to the shiny club of two-parent families. They didn't have to wake up so early to go to daycare, I complained. They had big homes, fancy stuff, and family vacations, not small apartments, yard sale fare, and layaway at Marshall's.
My mother said nothing until she drove her silver Ford Futura into a parking space, her face assuming an expression I later realized was grim maternal determination to hide her hurt. She hit the pale, white overhead light above me and fixed her eyes on mine. And then she said, "On a scale of major world tragedies, yours is not a three."
Her comment was neither soothing nor funny at the time. But I have thought of it over and over these past 30 years, as I gathered up my pride and sought the courage to take risks and tackle failure. She was my example in all this. And she was right, of course. We had no tragedy at the time (that came later), we just had struggle -- and only compared to the people I envied. I could easily have looked economically downwind and seen lots of kids I knew who had it far worse -- they didn't have the rock of parental strength that I relied upon. Right away, I felt ashamed to be so ungrateful, though of course I would never have admitted it under the glaring interrogation light bulb of the Futura.
The other thing my mother and her cadre of single moms known as the "Mothers' Club" taught all of us kids was to take care of ourselves and one another. If anyone needed dinner or a cup of sugar or a lift to the garage when their Fords collapsed on the Beltway, as ours did regularly, there was no question that one of the other mothers would be there. And when a sitter called in sick just as my godmother's night shift awaited, the evening would turn into a sleepover for all of us. When a snowstorm struck or Hurricane David tore through, we all banded together and camped out, four or six of us in a living room huddling over leftovers and playing board games by candlelight.