What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

lee on fourth birthday. another doll!


How many times did I hear that query? I never had an answer I could articulate. My only dream “career” was to be a mother. That called to me ever since I can remember. Dolls were my choice of toys. When someone in my neighborhood had a baby, I was the first youngster at the door to see that miraculous little being. Babysitting was my first job at the tender age of 12. When my nieces and nephews were born, I was the willing and excited Auntie. But, somehow, even in the 50s and into the 60s, I was aware that those asking the question were looking for something more serious in a response.

lee with nephew adam and niece parrish

 Time marched on. The question kept coming at me. Especially after graduating from a fine high school and looking at colleges. I still had no answer. So liberal arts it was, at a small women’s college in New York. That proved interesting and even fun, but uninspiring. I was anxious to get out into the world and away from academia. Took my two year degree and moved to New York City and set about looking for and apartment and work.

I thought I could write. Poems and essays came easily to me. Pouring my teenage heart out on paper refreshed and renewed me. However, that was squelched quickly by a freshman professor who took my latest piece and held it up to the class and proclaimed it “the work of ego.” She was appalled that what I had written was about myself, my own thoughts. Looking back now, I ponder what the hell else did I know? I was 19. My own feelings and reflections were all my inexperienced and unworldly self could relate to.

lee with sister pat and niece lisa and nephew haig

 So, I went to a summer of secretarial school. Managed to acquire some mad typing and dictation skills, since it became clear I was not going to set the publishing world on fire, as I had hoped. Hired by a television station in their advertising department and with a studio apartment I could ill-afford, I was where I wanted to be—single, employed and living in New York City.

 This job was pleasurable and exciting. It also introduced me to the woman who is still my dearest friend, whose desk was next to mine and to whom I instantly related, although our backgrounds could not have been more diverse. From this job, I worked my way into the wild world of advertising in the early 1970s. (Think Mad Men!) Eventually, I made my way into a lucrative and stimulating position in the media department of Grey Advertising. Then into the newly hatching world of buying services, with a job more on the cutting edge of media purchasing and with a salary I could barely believe I was worthy of!

new york city. in my office at independent media.

 This whole upward profession spiral led me to a marriage with a dashing handsome top-level executive 16 years my senior. Short-lived, but loving and full of lessons for me. When that folded, I was left heartbroken and truly wondering if advertising was the profession I wanted to continue in. Clearly the answer was no.

 What did I love to do? I had spent all these years in advertising, just being carried along with the fine flow of it all. Enjoying it, for sure. But, my 20s were over, my marriage was over and I was over it.

 I love birds. I love flowers. These remembrances of what had made me happy as a little girl came before my consciousness as a step in reclaiming myself and my life.

 What followed was a job at the Audubon Society, at a greatly reduced salary, back in secretarial work. But, I was happy to be working for such a great organization with people passionate about what they did every day.

I spent my spare time volunteering at the New York Botanical Society. I took calligraphy lessons. I cultivated the great circle of friends I had met. I was content.

 Just when I least expected it, another wonderful man entered my life. We courted while backpacking, camping and exploring beaches near the city and as far away as the Caribbean and Hawaii. Having moved in together and spending lots of time at home and entertaining, I reignited my love of the kitchen. This segued into my own catering business, run out of our apartment. Once more, I had stumbled onto something to make money which also made my heart sing.

 This romance bloomed into marriage and my original calling was tweaking my biological clock. I wanted to be a mama–really badly. Enter firstborn son in July after 36 hours of labor in our hot apartment . Exit thoughts of trying to run business and be all I wanted to be in a mother. Fortunately, my husband was bringing in sufficient funds in a commercial acting and modeling career to support this, both practically and emotionally. Win-win.

sky 1983

 The brownstone in which we rented was sold. We were bought out of our rent-controlled lease and, after looking at co-ops in the city, decided on a move to Old Greenwich, Connecticut, with an easy commute for him and a small town life of biking, walking, library, beach for us all. Small town has a small sweet health food store. Son is old enough to consider the notion of baking for that store. At home baking business is born, with baby strapped to me while working and on the back of my bike while delivering. Life is beyond grand.

nell 1986

 And that age-old urge is coming on me again as son turns two. And, so it was that my daughter was born, in our cozy house on a stunning September evening.

 I had become all I wanted to be when I grew up–a mama with a loving husband who was a doting dad. But, small town Connecticut was becoming — well, small. We dreamed of a place where the children could grow up with more land, more sun and less clothes! The real estate market was bullish, the house sold the day it was put on the market. We packed up all our stuff in storage, crammed a van full of the four of us and headed cross country. The leap was huge.

And it landed us on Kauai, where we still are, 27 years later. We had enough saved to buy land, build our home, guest house and barn. We then consider, once again, just how to generate income. “What shall we do now that we are grown up?” Well, first let’s plant a garden and orchard for us. Oh, people really want this fine fresh organic food? Business is born, as is second son, in our newly built home on another sultry September afternoon.


bay 1990


bay sky nell 1992

The marriage did not last. But the business has, in the full and fine intention in which it was created. And has expanded to include rental of the guest house and expansion of the organic farm. It is a full-fledged eco-tourism destination on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. We grow food for our community and let visitors get a glimpse of a sustainable lifestyle. It is a right livelihood.

And, now, at almost 65, I still wonder what is next? Now that I am really grown up. Kind of. And still my greatest joy, even after crafting all these opportunities in my life to provide abundance, is that I am a mama. All I ever really imagined myself being. So, I could never give an answer to that somewhat-annoying question I was asked so many times “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But, somehow it worked out perfectly at each and every crossroad in my life.

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bay nell lee sky 2013

One Comment on “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

  1. Love this Lee…A simple bio, now I know you a bit better…. and it brought tears to my eyes…Love you so much…I feel so lucky to get to hang out with you now and then.

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