‘Life was richer then,” one of my cousins said Friday night. We were talking at her mother’s wake, and she was, not surprisingly, looking back. She thought the ’50s and ’60s were “richer” than the world we live in today.
I love the word “rich” when it’s applied to something other than wealth — or to a different kind of wealth. The word itself is rich: connoting (and denoting) fullness, depth, flavor, complexity, promise, meaning, satisfaction, pleasure. How we want life to be all the time, I guess.
Life was rich then. Certainly my memories of that time are rich (and I am the richer for them). But I wouldn’t agree that it was richer than today. I’m always willing to take nostalgia’s magic carpet ride, but we know enough history to resist beatifying the past. And unlike some, I remember more than the happy stuff. Memory reminds me of the struggles and difficulties, the sufferings and regrets.
If a supernatural envoy offered me a chance to go back to any point in my life, I would decline. Maybe for a short visit — if the return were guaranteed. That might prove illuminating and poignant. But I wouldn’t want a “do-over,” knowing what I know now, to see if I could live my life more flawlessly or fully.
I was given a great gift: to be one of the lucky few, privileged to live. I have embraced that gift as fully as I was able at each stage of my life and will continue to do so. If I want to live better, there’s no time like the present to start.
The fact is, I find life richer as I go along — multidimensional, greater depth, surprising in pleasant and unpleasant ways. Wakes, for instance. A life unfolds before you, and your own life, the part of it you shared with the deceased, unfolds as well. My aunt, who died last week at the age of 93, grew up in Antlers, Oklahoma, moved to San Diego to work during World War II, met my uncle, who was in the Navy, fell in love, married, moved to suburban Chicago, and raised five children. A remarkable odyssey through a significant era in this country’s history.
Getting a sense of the richness of a person’s life at their wake, reinforces one of my core beliefs — that no one is ordinary, that our lives are filled with riches, no matter our circumstances, no matter our personal imperfections and difficulties.
The next morning, I drove to Carol Stream to take care of my twin grandsons — who have enriched my life immeasurably — an opportunity to re-introduce them to the wonder of snow. My son and I then took them to visit my ailing mother, their great-grandmother, because she doesn’t have that much time left. This might be their last visit with her. Four generations, three of us knowing time is short and therefore precious, saying “I love you” in lieu of goodbye.
Mom’s had a rich life, but she’s lived too long, or so she says, though not long enough to wear out her welcome. Love is the measure of a well-lived life and grief, as some have said, is the price we pay for love. But it’s worth the price. When she dies, our lives will be watered with tears.
Afterward, during the two-hour drive home through an unexpected, unseasonable blizzard, I listened to NPR’s Saturday afternoon storytelling shows, which reveal the richness of real life beyond imagining. Then in the evening, friends invited me to their family gathering, which was rich in food and richer in conversation, ranging from babies laughing on the Internet to the trials of restaurant wait staff to deep free-diving to evolution, the evening highlighted by a confluence of celebrated milestones.
On Sunday morning, clear, sunlit and cold, I wished a happy Thanksgiving to the usual crew at Red Hen and stared out at the postcard-perfect snow — undeniably beautiful and undeniably a pain in the ass. A lot like life come to think of it.
I attended a Unitarian service in a Lutheran church (long story) and heard the choir belt out Aaron Copland’s “Promise of Living,” his ode to harvests, literal and figurative, from The Tender Land. And I ended the day at the Community of Congregations’ annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, whose theme, Peace in a Broken World, provided a healing balm against the dark backdrop of death and divisiveness. The world is at war, noted one minister, but not in here.
And that was just one mid-November weekend. Our lives are a rich soil; who knows what will spring from it next, when it will be watered, and when it might be harvested?
I don’t know who is responsible for life’s richness, but I’m thankful — thankful, as e.e. cummings wrote, “for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly [or snow frosted] spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is Yes.”