There is a naked Christmas tree sitting in our living room. Buck naked. Not even a string of lights to hide its prickly bits. I’d post a picture, but my blog might be considered to have mature content if I did. So use your imagination.
Normally by this time on the Sunday after Thanksgiving the tree would at least have lights. Instead of stringing lights and hanging ornaments, I’m sitting on the sofa with a notebook computer on my lap and a glass of wine at my side.
Besides a naked tree, the room also boasts boxes and boxes and boxes of Christmas paraphanalia. We started puting the decorations around the house, but there’s a Steeler’s game on — the guys are watching that. Clare’s in the middle of a good book. And I have my wine.
Because we didn’t have other plans on Thanksgiving, we decided to eat dinner early and then see a movie. I’d been wanting to see Happy-Go-Lucky since I heard that Mike Leigh had a new movie out, and the rest of the family agreed to see it.
The film focuses on Poppy, a 30 year old woman who seems to have an unending amount of good nature in all situations. Near the beginning of the film, when she discovers her bike has been stolen, simply says something like “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.” The film goes on to show Poppy with friends, at work, jumping on a trampoline, taking Flamenco dancing lessons, taking driving lessons — all with a smile on her face and good cheer all around.
Of course the film is much more than that — it’s a Mike Leigh movie after all. Behind Poppy’s happiness are other emotions. Behind the faces of others in the film are more emotions. It’s not really a lighthearted movie, nor necessarily a “feel good” film — and possibly the kind of film you’ll need to see more than once to appreciate (I plan on seeing it again sometime this week).
I’ve been thinking about happiness for a while now — way before I saw this film. Maybe it started back when I posted about the woman with the dog who was laughing, but I suspect it was before then.
Back to Poppy — in Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy, when encountering someone who doesn’t laugh along with her, often asks, “Having a bad day, are you?” They invariably reply that they aren’t. I’ve got a feeling that if I met Poppy, she’d end up asking me if I was having a bad day.
See, I don’t smile much. So much that people often think I’m having a bad day or in a bad mood or angry at them. I suspect that I’ve been like this since I was very young. I remember being the kid in my classes — it might have been around 3rd grade — who always wanted to be the good one. Always wanted to be the kid who didn’t laugh at the antics of the class clowns. I remember forcing my facial muscles into a frown when they wanted to smile. In 3rd grade. I didn’t want the teacher to see me laughing. I wanted the teacher to know I was on her side.
This tactic served me well until I got older and lost friends, or at least the opportunity of friends, because I looked so stern. People often ask me if I ever smile, and more times than I can count, someone tells me I have a nice smile and should use it more.
I lost at least one job opportunity because I didn’t smile enough during the interview. I know this because the interviewer asked me why I didn’t smile during the whole interview and said that the students at that school needed someone who showed positive emotions.
My daughter has brought this up many times — and tells me that I’ll feel better if I smile. Maybe she’s right — it just feels unnatural. I think it’s like posture. I’m used to frowning like I’m used to slouching. Standing straight feels strange as does smiling.
Last night, as I got ready for bed, I thought of something amusing. I noticed that, even then — in a dark room and basically alone (my husband was sleeping) — I forced the smile that wanted to erupt on my face down into a frown. Why was I even keeping a smile from myself?
It’s not that I am not a happy person — I think I’m as happy as the next person, but I refuse to show it. Am I afraid I’ll get into trouble if I laugh occasionally? From whom? Myself? Don’t I deserve to be happy? If so, why not?
Maybe I’ll take a cue from Poppy. And the laughing stranger. And even Marcia — I don’t really remember her being unhappy — she was always good-natured. Maybe that’s how I’ll celebrate her life — and my own, by changing an aspect of my own and smiling more.
I think I remember the first time I met Marcia. It was at a picnic. Near a lake. With an outhouse. I think. After that we were together a lot. Not because we were friends, really, but because our parents were friends. Best of friends. They did everything together and we went along for the rides much of the time.
In grade school Marcia hung out with a different crowd than I did. She had a large and gregarious family. I had a small and less outgoing family. She knew how to be around other people. I didn’t.
When Marcia’s family had parties I often dreaded them because I didn’t know how to deal with a crowd of kids. I only knew how to interact with one friend at a time. For years I thought it was Marcia — that she ignored me when she had other friends. But these many years later, I know it was me. I was not a team player.
Anyway, from the day we met and throughout much of my life, Marcia was often a part of the surroundings. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good.
As juniors in high school we both participated in the same exchange program with a grammar school near Leeds, England. Her family hosted Chris and we hosted Vilma. When it was our turn to visit the UK she stayed with Chris’ family and I stayed with Jeremy’s family. (Search “Vilma” on this blog to see what happened with her)
Marcia and I shared a hotel room in London our last night there — not because we requested it, but because our last names were next to each other on the alphabetical list. It turned out fine though. I think I’d become afraid of her, and I realized she was the same Marcia as that first time we met on the picnic. By the lake. With an outhouse.
We finally became friends after high school. We both kept ties with England — me through Jeremy and Marcia through Sue (a friend of Jeremy who stayed with Marcia’s family one summer). We had fun going to bars in Minocqua, Wisconsin, the town near where our families bought summer homes. I also remember taking a hike through the meadow at the top of the hill behind her parent’s lake house. We came back covered in wood ticks and helped each other remove them. We found over 50 ticks between the two of us.
One summer evening I went to a beer garden in Dundee, Illinois with my soon-to-be roommate, Julia. We met a few guys, one of whom reminded me of Christopher Reeve. Being young and single, I boldly invited the Christopher Reeve look-alike and his friends to a party we were hosting that weekend.
The party was a welcome to the USA party for Julia (she was from England — of course). The Christopher Reeve look-alike and friends showed up. In the kitchen, Marcia whispered to me that she knew the Christopher Reeve look-alike from an art class she’d taken and she was interested in him. I suggested that they go sparking. They did. They married not long after. Thank goodness for Wintergreen Life Savers.
The next summer or perhaps the same summer, I finally got my drivers license. To celebrate, Marcia and I rode our bicycles to a local biker bar for a few drinks. When we got there I was dismayed to see that the bar was completely crowded. Not one table or bar stool was empty. Being me, I would have gone home, but I had Marcia with me. Marcia, in her Marcia way, went up to a man sitting alone at a table if he’d mind if we joined him. He said no and we sat down. When Marcia went to talk to people she knew in the bar I began talking to the man at the table. It turned out that I knew of his sister, who died in a car accident the year before. I also knew a neighbor of his. By the end of the evening we’d exchanged phone numbers and I had a feeling that this man was “the one”. We married about 5 years later.
Since moving away from Elgin, I didn’t see Marcia much. Rarely we’d make it a point to get together when I was in town and we’d occasionally be in Wisconsin at the same time. She had 4 kids — the youngest about the same age as my eldest.
About a year ago or so — maybe two — my mom called to tell me that Marcia had ovarian cancer and was going to have surgery the next day. She called back to tell me that the surgery was successful and the doctor had high hopes that with chemotherapy Marcia would be a survivor. I spoke, briefly, to Marcia not long after that. She was in good spirits and hopeful that it would all work out fine.
Marcia was allergic to the first choice, and most effective of chemotherapy drugs and had to take something weaker. My mom continued to give me updates.
Last month my mom called to tell me that the doctor gave Marcia 6 months to live.
She died last night.
I’d been meaning to write to her to tell her how much I was in her debt for “finding” me my husband. That without her boldness I’d not know my two wonderful children. I think I knew I’d never write that note — I really didn’t know how.