What is happiness?
I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows. But I do know this: Whatever happiness may be, it’s made up of many parts, some of them large, some of them small. A large part of my happiness — no doubt the largest part — is just being with my beloved wife, Lolly. I can’t picture a life without her. I wouldn’t want one. It would be no life at all.
Be that as it may, and even though Lolly looms so large in my life, I am strongly aware of other things that contribute to my happiness. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been there.
There are other people, of course. Lots of them. More than we sometimes realize, I think. The measure of that is the sadness we feel when others depart this odd thing we call life. We wouldn’t feel so terribly sad about their going if they weren’t a part of that something in us that we so casually call happiness.
There are other things too. And that’s what I’m thinking about today — those other things.
When you get to my age, you have a head full of memories. The surprising thing is how many of those memories are happy ones. I’m no psychologist, but I suspect the reason for that may be that we lean back after something good happens, smile a little smile or two, and reinforce the memory. And as that happy event recedes into the past we continue to do the same thing. We think about it again. It feels good. Doggone good! So why not do it? I do. So do we all, I think. And so we do it over and over again, remembering the good times and kinda sorta letting the rest go.
But there’s a danger in that, one I’ve run into a couple of times, one I’d like to warn you about. I want to warn you about it because it hurts, and the very least we ought to do for each other in this world is try to steer each other away from pain.
Worst of all, this particular pain is self-inflicted, which makes it all easier to sidestep it. There are lots of brick walls in this world. Not much sense in beating your head against one of them you built yourself.
The first time I ever made this particular mistake in a really big way was in September 1961, which also happens to be one of the happiest months of my entire life. Lolly and I were married in June 1960, and a little over a year later we, and our first son David, arrived in New London for a short leave before taking off again for a cross-country drive to California, where I was to be stationed (against my will, of course) for a year.
At that time, Mom, Pop and Charlie, my next oldest brother, had moved out of the stately old two-story Victorian where I grew from a pre-teen to an adult. I’ve mentioned that old place a dozen or more times in these columns.
It sat high on a hill overlooking the whole town. In fact, my view of New London, even when I think of it today, is the view from the skylight of our old place.
What a house! They don’t build them like that any more. I doubt they ever did. Really. Eight-by-eight, hand-hewn oak beams ran two stories up from a solid granite foundation to a twelve-by-twelve oak cap beam into which they were mortised and pegged. Didn’t need any fancy insulation. The eight-inch gap in the wall did it all. And solid? We sat out two hurricanes up there on that hill. The old house just swayed gently in the breeze and enjoyed the fresh air. A 125-foot tall elm crashed down on it during a hurricane. Waste of time. Didn’t hurt a thing. Except the elm.
That old house was more than just a place to live in. I guess I don’t have to tell you that any house lying at the center of 12 years of boy-to-manhood has got to be filled with memories. And it was. I can hardly think of all those years without seeing a tall white-clapboarded old Victorian in there somewhere.
So three days after Lolly and I had settled in for our visit with the family I smiled and said, “C’mon, sweetheart. Let’s get in the car. I’ll show you the house I grew up in.”
Mom frowned. “I ... uh, I don’t think you should do that.”
“Why not, Mom?”
She seemed unwilling to talk about it. “It’s not the same.”
Well, I’ve never been big on taking hints so off we went anyway. Up Bank Street to State Street, up State Street to Huntington Street, and along Huntington Street to number 220.
I stood on the sidewalk with my mouth hanging open. It wasn’t there! I could not believe my eyes. It had to be there. It had always been there. How could it not be there now?
But it wasn’t. In fact, not only was there no house, there was no level at which I could stand which marked the level of our yard. Gone were all the old Victorians which had stood in a row along Huntington Street, right on down to the schoolhouse in which Nathan Hale taught before he went off to war and gave his life for our country.
What stood there instead?
Several — I don’t know how many, I couldn’t have counted my fingers at that moment — cheap, flat roofed, one story row houses with their sides facing the street. I walked up a narrow sidewalk in front of one of them. There were six apartments in it. In front of the fifth apartment from the street sat a black woman shucking peas in a dishpan. I stopped before her. She looked up at me. I looked back. I wanted to say something, what I don’t know. I turned and walked back to Lolly who was sitting in the car. What I said to her I don’t remember. I’m glad I don’t remember.
Take it from me: Never go back. Cling to your memories the way you cling to life itself. Never — ever! — make the mistake of going back unless you are sure of what you are going back to. If you do, you risk destroying the joy that fills you when you think of a place you love. Once that joy is gone, it’s gone.
What replaces it?
A sense of failure and betrayal. Failure that you weren’t there to preserve and protect something precious. Betrayal that someone decided to destroy it for the sake of a few bucks.