Heroes come in many sizes, shapes, and ages. Although heroism knows no gender, most publicly honored heroes tend to be men, since their military service and career choices are more likely to put them in the line of danger.
Think, for instance, of the soldier in any war who risks his own life to save a buddy in the heat of battle.
Or the American pilot who safely landed his Navy spy plane and 24 passengers on an island off the coast of China after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet last month.
Or the off-duty firefighter in suburban Boston who went out last Sunday to buy a Mother's Day card and noticed a house in flames. He rushed inside and rescued two elderly sisters who have lived there all their lives.
No wonder hero tends to be a macho word. By contrast, its feminine form, heroine, sounds slightly quaint and delicate, often describing the central female character in a novel or play rather than a heroic woman in real life.
Typically, medals and ceremonies honor those who perform a courageous act under extraordinary circumstances. But another kind of heroism, seldom celebrated publicly, involves the accumulation of many small deeds that, taken together, over a long period, add up to impressive, if
largely private, accomplishments.
Consider the award recently given to a couple from the Mediterranean island of Gozo, off Malta, who became the object of international attention last August after the birth in England of their conjoined twins, Jodie and Mary. The twins were separated, and the couple will soon take their surviving daughter, Jodie, home with them. Because they have kept a vigil at the hospital for nine months, a religious group has given them its annual Heart of Gold trophy for being a "most exemplary and heroic couple."
Another kind of hero involves women who hold their families together in the face of difficult circumstances.
A new book, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less," by Terry Ryan, describes an enterprising woman, Evelyn Ryan, who kept the wolf from the door by writing jingles at the ironing board during the contest era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mrs. Ryan defied her abusive, alcoholic husband and popular conventions about what a housewife of the time was supposed to do. According to her daughter, she displayed a sunny disposition even in the midst of poverty.
My aunt in Milwaukee tells about the similarly cheerful and uncomplaining attitude of her mother as she fed and clothed four children during the Depression. Although her husband brought home only $10 a week, she kept her family going by exchanging food with a neighbor, doing ironing for a wealthy woman, and taking in boarders.
"These mothers were heroes," my aunt says, awe evident in her voice as she refers to other women in the neighborhood as well. "They have been underrated."
What is heroism? Who is heroic? In an age obsessed with wealth, celebrities, and zillionaire sports "heroes," definitions vary.
Every era can count its own equally underrated, equally selfless caregivers - unknown, unsung heroes and heroines, doing what they must with courage and grace, expecting no reward, but quietly setting impressive examples for those around them. Whether they are honored in a public memoir like Terry Ryan's or with private gratitude like my aunt's, it would signal a fresh point of view if they, too, could be seen as heroes, however invisible their medals and ribbons.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor