Doing Life Right
I am 12 and my great aunt, Etty, is taking me to lunch.
Etty is in her 60s, but to me, she’s about 100. She leans over the table, raises her bright-red polished fingernail at me.
“Let me tell you some thing, Honey. We only come this way once. But if you do it right, once is enough.”
This is good news. This is bad news.
“But wait, Etty,” I say, “How do I know how to do it right?” She smiles, squeezes my hand. Her eyes crinkle into a wide smile. “That takes time, Sweetheart. Time!“
The question follows me home where I find Filmore, our housekeeper.
Appearance? Fillmore spends his days in other peoples’ homes, moving from room to room, cleaning counters, making order. Hard, joyless work. Reality? Fillmore sings. He smiles. He watches his food with interest and pleasure as he eats. He has all the time in the world.
When I burst through the front door at the end of the day, he stands up tall and bellows in his warm, raspy voice, “Well hello, Sweetheart! How’re you doing?” My soul rises.
I am 17, I am 18, racing fast on the path. Work, work, work. Achieve, achieve, achieve. My soul watches on quietly.
Every few days, I call home from my dorm room. “Hellllo?” Fillmore answers. “Fiilllmoree,” I cry, and his voice is a balm. “Fillmore, tell me already, what is the meaning of life?”
I say it like I’m joking, but I really want to know. His answer is always the same: “To live, baby, just to live.”
I am 23, 24, 25. I am living in New York City, fast on my way to big, important things.
Somehow I stumble upon a person I hope to love forever. A few blinks later, I hold an intoxicating, delicious baby in my arms.
My soul hums and whispers to me, nudges me soundlessly onto an unexpected path of full-time motherhood.
When I call a former colleague months later, he greets me: “Back from the dead yet?”
Oh my God. I’ve fallen off the path. Or is this the path?
I call my grandmother, Estie, who left her home alone at 19 to build an escape route for her family from Hitler. I tell her I’m afraid I’ve fallen off the path. This is what she says: “Jula, don’t take life so seriously. Life is so short. Life is so beautiful. Enjoy your life. Enjoy your life!“
Fillmore is dying peacefully. I sit next to him as he lies in his small bed. I hold his big hand, tears running down my face. He looks at me with his laughing brown eyes and he winks. “Remember, baby, remember. Just to live.“
I am 34, living on a new coast, a new home that feels so foreign, so far from home. Our children are 10, 6. They are magical. We are so busy. So, so busy. One day my daughter asks me, “Mama, why are we always in a hurry, even when there’s not really a hurry?”
Frida, our Latvian babysitter, who escaped from the concentration camps hears. “We are all running to the grave,” she says.
Last week, I sit at a café with a high school student. She is looking despondently at the 4-inch binder of college information on the table before her. I can tell, she is struggling to imagine what doing it right feels like.
Gently, we steer past the edges of scores and essays, past the expectations and the blinking lights of the now, to the idea of a path that makes her whole soul hum.
I let her in on a tightly-held secret among us adults: most of us are still looking.
It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am having coffee with a friend. It’s taken us literally years to make the time to finally stop long enough to sit together, breathe, see each other as we really are. She leans over, her eyes shining at me. “This is what makes life rich,” she tells me. “This.”
I am outside in the backyard with my children. The wind sways the trees above us, trees that have lived for a 100 years.
My daughter and I are floating down the Yellowstone River. She is 8. We are doing nothing. The river shimmers in the afternoon sun. The fish rise and break the water.
“Mamma? Mamma, is this the life?” she asks me. And she really wants to know.
Etty raises her finger to me. Fillmore, Frida, Estie whisper in my ear.
“Yes,” I tell her, “yes.”
“This is the life.”
This is the life.
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