Surviving is important. Thriving is elegant.
In 1961, there were very few undergraduates over the age of 30. Frances was 47. We met in freshman anatomy class and studied together at the student union, memorizing the names of bones and the origins and insertions of muscles. We grew to be friends. She lived off campus for all except our junior year when we had private rooms in the nurse’s dorm to accommodate our 24-hour work schedule. Her room was next to mine.
When President Kennedy was shot, I remember I was sitting on Frances’ single bed, sorting three-by-five research cards and listening to the radio. She was at her desk writing more cards. Her life’s history was peppered with similar cataclysmic events. She recounted each one to me in great detail. Most recently, she’d been the wife of a university professor who died in a freek wreck the year before she started back to college. I recalled the news account about the slab of preformed concrete that slid off of a flat-bed truck onto her husband’s car. My heart hurt for her.
To me, everything about Frances was elegant and glamorous. I admired her greatly. She was nearly Mama’s age, but Mama was Mama and Frances was elegant. Elegant and unhappy. Mama may not have seemed elegant, but Mama was usually happy. I spent a lot of time trying to make Frances happy like Mama. I fixed her tea in her favorite cup so she could relax. I fixed her knitting mistakes so she wouldn’t get frustrated. I asked for her as my lab partner so she wouldn’t feel left out and I tried to keep her encouraged. So many sad things had populated her life that I assumed the memories killed her happiness. I didn’t have a clue.
We kept in touch for years after graduation. She moved to New Orleans. “Good,” I thought. “Maybe she’ll find happiness there–or someone who could make her happy.” She wasn’t happy there, nor in the places she lived after that. Frances died at the age of 83–still elegant but unhappy. Mama lived to be 95. I spent her last two years caring for her and finally saw what I’d really known all along. She was usually happy, not because she found happiness by chance or because someone made her so. She was happy because she consciously decided to pursue happiness not only for her own wellbeing, but also to create a positive environment for those who shared her life. Even on days filled with pain and trouble, she noticed the lovely things and dwelt on happy memories.
I remember a particularly challenging time in my life when I was driving down my North Carolina Smoky Mountain on my way to work. A brook tumbled over rocks next to the road and something red in a bed of ferns on the bank caught my eye so I pulled over and went to look. It was a trillium. I hunkered down for a closer look. The cool mist from the stream washed my face and the bubbling sound of water blended with the rustling leaves to fill my mind. The tiny flower was perfect. The beauty of the moment wrapped its arms around me. As I pulled the heels of my dress pumps out of the soft soil to head back to the car, I realized that I could do nothing at that very moment to change any circumstance that was pushing in on my life. Why let the big picture ruin a moment of communion with a trillium?
That is when I learned that happiness can coexist with turmoil and challenges. The paradox taught me mama’s lesson of happiness. I could choose to dwell on the sadness or I could focus on the trillium. I think of how Mama thrived elegantly and I follow her lead.