I was twenty one and sobbed after reading Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. It’s about Emily, a young woman who dies in childbirth and is allowed to go back and relive one day of her life. She chooses her twelfth birthday.
Her fellow dead citizens in the town’s cemetery warn her not to go. It’s never a good idea, they say. Emily disregards this and stands watching her twelve year old self back in her childhood kitchen, chatting happily with her parents who bestow their modest birthday gifts.
The scene becomes so poignant and the passing of years so painful, Emily begs to go back among the dead who nod in understanding. “The living don’t know,” they tell her.
So many of us, myself included, trundle through our days head down, checking off to-do lists, gabbing on cell phones, shaking our heads at the person driving too slow ahead of us. We’re trained to believe happiness is about peak moments – graduations, weddings, parties, promotions, and of course there’s much to be celebrated there.
But as I’ve grown older, I see how joy is really in small things — the laughter of family around the dinner table, the smile of a stranger, sunsets, lunch with friends, a cat sleeping in the sun, the jingle of snow plows on a winter morning, the first crocus in March.
And yet Thornton Wilder was right. Most of us lack the perspective to really appreciate what we have when we have it. That kind of insight only comes in glimpses. It only comes with distance.
After reading Our Town that afternoon so long ago, I wiped my tears and came downstairs to the smell of a Sunday roast in the oven. My father and little brother were watching football in the living room. My younger sister was with her friends, laughing over some boy. I came to the kitchen to find my mother in her apron, stirring gravy in a pan.
“Dinner’s soon,” she said. “Can you set the table?” She noticed my face, eyes red from crying. “Are you okay?” she asked. At that moment, I felt like Emily, seeing my life for the first time, in all its simple beauty. We were together. We were a family. We were all happy and healthy. But unlike Emily, I was still here. I could still hug my mother. And I could still look at her and say, “I’m fine.”