Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Least Important Day

In observation of Groundhog Day, my childhood friend and neighbor Rebecca Sprigg provided a facebook prompt: "If you had to live one day of your life over and over again, what day would you choose, and why?"

Becky had the movie Groundhog Day in mind, but I was immediately reminded of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. This play is dear to my heart -- as you can see above from the leading quotation of this blog -- and has been ever since way back in 1973, when my brother Bruce portrayed the character of George. Bruce, of course, knew what I was talking about when I said to Becky that "This play breaks my heart every time." The was he explains it:
"This play is when I learned how to 'be in the moment.' In the scene where George goes to the graveyard to visit Emily's (Yvonne Brooks') grave, I actually cried . . . real tears."
Shortly after Emily's untimely death (at age 26, during childbirth), she is allowed to revisit Earth for a day, and she wants to choose a "happy day," but the Dead advise her "No! At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough."

Here are the lines, in context:

Emily: Live people don't understand, do they?

Mrs. Gibbs: No, dear, not very much.

Emily: They're sort of shut up in little boxes, aren't they? I feel as though I knew them
last a thousand years ago. . . . I never realized before how troubled and
how, how in the dark live persons are. . . . From morning till night, that's all they are, troubled. . . .
But . . . one can go back; one can go back there again, into living. I feel it. I know it. . . .

Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can.

Emily: I can go back there and live all those days over again...why not?

Mrs. Gibbs: All I can say is, Emily, don't.

Emily (To the Stage Manager): But it's true, isn't it? I can go and live, back there, again.

Stage Manager: Yes, some have tried but they soon come back here.

Mrs. Gibbs: Don't do it, Emily.

Mrs. Soames: Emily, don't. It's not what you think it'd be.

Emily: But I won't live over a sad day. I'll choose a happy one. I'll choose the day I first knew that I loved George. Why should that be painful?

Stage Manager: You not only live it but you watch yourself living it.

Emily: Yes?

Stage Manager: And as you watch it, you see the thing that they, down there, never know. You see the future. You know what's going to happen afterwards.

Emily: But is that -- painful? Why?

Mrs. Gibbs: That's not the only reason why you shouldn't do it, Emily. When you've been here longer you'll see that our life here is to forget all that and think only of what's ahead and be ready for what's ahead. When you've been here longer you'll understand.

Emily: But, Mother Gibbs, how can I ever forget that life? It's all I know. It's all I had.

Mrs. Soames: Oh, Emily. It isn't wise. Really, it isn't.

Emily: But it's a thing I must know for myself. I'll choose a happy day, anyway.

Mrs. Gibbs: No! At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.

Emily: . . . I can choose a birthday at least, can't I? I choose my twelfth birthday.

Stage Manager: All right. February 11th, 1899. A Tuesday. Do you want any special time of

Emily: Oh, I want the whole day.

But, as it turns out, she can't bear the whole day.
After only an hour or so, she cries out to the Stage Manager:

Emily: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. . . . I didn't realize. . . . Take me back -- up the hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners -- Mama and Papa. Goodby to clocks ticking…and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.


So, to make a short story long, this poignant scene is what came to mind when I read Becky's question about repeatedly reliving a day from the past.

Reading over the responses to the Becky's prompt, I was interested to see that some commenters had interpreted living "one day of your life over and over again," as a good day that they would like to experience perpetually; but others had interpreted it as a do - over day that they would like to improve upon or change.

I asked Becky which she preferred, and she explained what she had in mind originally:
"Yesterday I was thinking about the movie Groundhog Day, but had forgotten the plot. Living that day over and over again was not a good thing for the character Bill Murray played. He only got out of that vicious cycle by slowly changing, realizing his mistakes, doing things for others and being a nice guy. So my initial thought was that people would share a blissful day that they wouldn't mind re-living.

In that vein, I love the touching memories my friends and family have shared. However, equally touching are the do-over stories. I appreciate the bravery of those willing to share about their losses (none shared here related to any personal failings) that evoke regret. Everyone has them. Sharing them seems to me a path to peace with our past. This is a long way to get to your answer, but please feel free to share either a happy day or a do-over day."
I had to brood about all these options for awhile, but finally I decided to go with the first day of 2nd grade at Eugene Field Elementary School (Neosho, Missouri, Fall 1964). Here's why, not so much because I want to relive it over and over; and not because it requires a do - over, but out of curiosity:

For as long as I can remember, I have had this memory that my grandparents -- my mother's parents Paul & Rovilla Lindsey -- drove me to school on the first day of 2nd grade. But could that really be true? It seems unlikely, but in my memory, I had stayed with them until the very last day of summer vacation, and they drove me back home either the evening before school started or that very morning (they lived about 2 hours away from Neosho, in Caney, Kansas). I can see it so clearly -- their car pulling up to the school (the door by the kindergarten side of the building), me wearing a plaid dress, jumping out of the car, running up the steps, and turning to wave to them. But where are my close - in - age siblings, Bruce and Diane? Aaron was too little for school; and David and Peggy were at high school. But it was also the first day at Field School for Bruce and Di, so they should have been there with me, jumping out of the car and running up the steps. Yet, I can see only myself.

If I could go back and live that day again, I could confirm whether or not or how much of this memory really happened or if I somehow just made it up because that's how I wanted the summer to be. She died of breast cancer in June 1966, and during her last 2 summers -- 1964 and 1965, Bruce and I spent a lot of time at their house, so maybe we really did stay that year until the very last day.

Choosing this day (if it really happened), would also allow me to hear my grandmother's voice once again. I was only 9 when she died, and sadly the memory of her voice is nearly lost to me. How I would love to hear it once again!
In conclusion, here is a contemporary passage -- written in 2016, describing the summer of 1938. It is so in keeping with the tone of Our Town written in 1938, describing the years from 1901 - 1913; and with my own childhood memories of sitting out on the front porch rocking chairs with my grandparents, as the light faded, night after night, summer after summer, 1960 - 1966:

“She watched her nieces commencing their nightly rite of selecting chairs. They were young and they didn’t understand. They believed that one chair was better than another. They believed that it was important to make distinctions, to choose, to discern particulars. Like crows, they picked out bits from each evening and lugged them around, thinking they were hoarding treasure. They remembered the jokes, or the games or the stories, not knowing that it was all one, that each tiny vibration of difference would be sanded, over the course of years, into sameness. It doesn’t matter, Jottie assured herself. They'll get to it. Later, they’ll understand that the sameness is the important part" (47 - 48).

from the novel The Truth According to Us
by American editor and author, Annie Barrows (b 1962)
Tea sets, here and above, on display
at the Art Institute of Chicago

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