The annual cicadas have barely begun their end-of-summer evensong in the trees behind our house, but children in the neighborhood are already headed back to school.
Twice last week I had to pull my car to a stop and wait until the school bus door opens with the familiar wheeze, releasing the rhythmic stomp of little feet marching down to the pavement.
Last year at this time, I often met this delay in my busy day with the fingertip drum of impatience on my steering wheel. This, however, is no ordinary year, and rather than tap my fingers I decide to fan them and admire the fresh coat of lavender nail polish. A scandalous nail color for me. More on that in a moment.
Earlier this month, my husband and I made our annual trek to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada, for the Shaw Festival, named for George Bernard Shaw. We stayed at the same B&B, walking to each of the three plays we chose to see. The last one we saw — “Our Town” — shook me awake, much the way it surely has for countless others since its debut in 1938, when its playwright, Thornton Wilder, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Maybe you’ve seen at least a production of this three-act play about a small New England town. It is a favorite of high school drama clubs and community theaters. If you have, the final act is likely the one that stayed with you. This is true at any age, as this is when the dead of Grover’s Corners — some of whom we met when they were alive — speak from the grave.
Emily Webb, a lead character in “Our Town,” has died in childbirth, but she resists her fate, ignoring the warnings of her deceased neighbors, pleading with the play’s narrator for one last visit — to what used to be, to when she was only 12 years old.
She regrets her visit almost immediately. Nobody lucky to be alive is paying attention to all that she misses. She can’t bear to watch any longer, she tells the stage manager.
“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. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
“Good-bye, Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-bye 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.”
If ever there were a time when I needed this reminder, it is now. I’ve let too many hours of my days be consumed with fear and loathing for the presidential campaign and all the angriness it fuels.
The best antidote, the only one I can figure, is to see all that is good around me.
I’ve never before worn lavender polish on my fingernails. It’s a bit risky at my age, or so the magazines say. Best to stay with neutral colors to avoid drawing attention to my aging hands. As if people are fooled by the lines on my face, maybe, or don’t see the little gray hairs escaping the dye job like sea oats waving “hi.”
It has occurred to me anew that there are consequences to thinking that wearing “Grape Gatsby” nail polish is a brushstroke too far. That kind of thinking creeps up on you like kudzu. Next thing you know, you’re telling your girlfriends over coffee that maybe you’ll plan ahead and move now to a house with no stairs.
It’s harvest time in our garden, which my husband tends as if our meals depend on it. He walks through the door, our dog’s tail flapping against his pant leg, and lifts up yet another basket full of the biggest, brightest tomatoes.
“Look!” he yells, but all I see is that big smile of his. That’s what I want to remember.
I stack the tomatoes in a bowl we’ve had since the day we married and slide it next to the batch of wildflowers I picked from my garden that morning. They swoop and sway in the hand-painted pitcher that belonged to my parents from the day they were married.
It’s enough, these small moments, this joy all around me. As long as I can see them, the days are good, and the year is a blessing.
“I love you all, everything,” Emily said after she had died. “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.