I’ve figured out the secret of happiness, and it doesn’t involve money, or technology, or things. Like Dorothy, the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, I guess I’ve known this all along. It just took a family reunion for it to come out and shine like a giant lightbulb over my head. I realized that all of my fondest memories involve spending time with people I care about. Usually with food, but not always. Just talking, hanging out, no cell phones, no activities, except maybe walking as we talk, or driving.
We just spent a week in South Carolina for a joyous occasion: a big bash to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday. But it wasn’t just the party that made the week so special. It was the opportunity to spend time with my brother, Bradley, my sister-in-law, Carole, and their beautiful daughters, Elizabeth, Grace, and Caroline. It was just sitting there watching my kids, Blair, Andy, and Josh, and my nieces playing hide and seek, swimming, playing killer badminton in the back yard — just enjoying each other’s company.
For some reason, that time together just opened a floodgate of happiness inside me, and all of these memories came bobbing to the surface like sweet, serene little sailboats. My mom wasn’t at the party; she died seven years ago. But she’s there at every meal, when we say the blessing she and my dad taught us. All our kids know it. We all say it and we sound, for a few seconds, like Gregorian monks doing a soft chant at restaurants. Mom’s there at birthdays, too, when we make “the cake” — originally my dad’s mother’s recipe, she made it ours, and now it belongs to the kids. A chocolate sheet cake with an icing that features an entire box of confectioner’s sugar. Not remotely healthy, but incredibly good.
While we were there, we went out for barbecue (mustard-based sauce!), fried chicken and catfish. Fried okra, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, banana pudding, hush puppies. All 12 of us, taking up two tables, people reaching across each other to share yummy bits from our plates. Like many meals, it ended with what the French call an “embonpoint,” a noticeable rounding of the belly as we slowly walked back to our cars, and more than one of us said, “Oh, my God.” We say that after big holiday meals, too, when we stroll very sedately around the block — as if we could walk off what we just ate.
We don’t eat that way much anymore, but those foods, and so many others, are associated with memories.
I remember a trip to New England in 1992, when I was pregnant with Blair. I had been so morning-sick, not able to keep anything down for weeks. (Fun fact: When you throw up Campbell’s Chicken and Stars soup, if you’re not careful, the stars will go right up your nose and you have to blow your nose to get them out.) Mark and I flew into Boston, rented a car and drove right up the coast. We stopped in Kennebunkport, and I had my first bouillabaise. It was right at the beginning of my second trimester, and all of a sudden, I could enjoy food again. Like a miracle, I wasn’t just eating the oyster crackers that came with it, but the actual fish stew! I’d never had anything so good. But I also remember just being with Mark, seeing a part of the country we had never seen, and enjoying our life together. We went to a bonfire in New Hampshire, and we had Maine lobsters for the first time. I remember talking to fellow college magazine editors, our faces red from the bonfire. The night was cold, so we were sitting on logs around the fire, dodging sudden sparks, looking up at the stars, and feeling how good it was to be alive.
I remember after our friend, Linda, died, and Mark, Blair, and our kids’ godmother, our friend Marion, went out to eat. I don’t remember what we ate, or the name of the restaurant, but I remember that we spent a long time there, sharing our memories of Linda, healing with food and company. I remember going out to a pub called John Steven in Fells Point, on the water in Baltimore, with good friends from Johns Hopkins. One of them, Martha, dubbed these events “5:01”s, because at one minute past five, we were out the door of our office. We would grab a big table and just sit there, eating shrimp steamed in Old Bay, talking about how crazy our jobs were, feeling more sane by the minute.
There’s a restaurant in Baltimore called Woodberry Kitchen, and we used to go there with our friends, Lisa and Eric, and take up space for two or three hours. The food was great, but that’s not why we stayed so long. In Scottsdale, Arizona, we went to one of those expensive restaurants where they grill meat and bring it to you on skewers. I remember it fondly, not just because the food was excellent, but because we got the chance to catch up with Mark’s mom, Sally, and his sister’s son, Logan, and to see what an impressive young man he has grown up to be.
I remember when Mark’s brother, Scott, and his wife, Jen, and their young daughter came to visit us and we managed to enjoy breakfasts together in our kitchen, despite the fact that we had to keep moving down the table because the sun was shining with blinding vigor through the big window.
When I look back on my life, it won’t be to praise myself for that time I climbed a 40-foot wall and did a zip line, despite my awful fear of heights. (Although I do recall the love and support of friends and my kids, and am grateful I am not still up there on that platform of terror.) Instead, I’ll remember things like driving with my dad. When he comes to visit us in Arizona, he likes to hit the road. We’ve been down to the Sonoran Desert near Mexico, and up in northern Arizona, to the Painted Desert, to the Red Rocks of Sedona, and the tiny mountainside village of Jerome. We have the radio on, but mostly we just talk for hours.
At our family reunion, we went to the beach. Carole and I walked for what seemed like miles, our feet always in the water, the wind and sun in our faces, just talking. Then we came back and with Mark, watched the six cousins play in the ocean. There was a shark attack the next day at that same Isle of Palms beach. But when I think back on that beautiful day, what I’m thinking about is the time spent with people I love.
I remember trail rides with Blair and, back in Virginia, with Mark, including a day when I took one for the team and smushed a giant horse fly on Prancer’s rear end with my bare hand. I couldn’t let that bastard bite him. I remember playing cards late at night, many nights, with Mark and Bradley, laughing and making up our own game rules and having a blast, then going for a food run well after midnight. Hours doing farm chores side by side with Andy, or working puzzles with Josh, or reading aloud to all three kids. Riding a slow ski lift in the summer to the top of Mount Humphries in Flagstaff with Mark, the kids and Andy’s best friend, Kevin, and watching clouds form from the snow that blew off the peak — we were up that high. Sitting on my porch swing talking to my friend, Patrice. Singing “Sound of Music” songs with my friend Karen in third grade. Riding bikes and singing TV Western theme songs with my friend Kathy in junior high. In high school, spending hours on the phone with my friend, Sheila, and driving around with Leigh Anne, stopping for late night doughnuts at Mr. Donut, where she worked. We lived in Lexington, Kentucky, and we would drive around at night with the windows open, smelling the tobacco drying in the big barns.
In my dad’s neighborhood in South Carolina, we always walk down the hill to the Saluda River, which is cold for some reason. We try to skip stones in it, but we never have the right angle, so they plop instead of skip, and we feel the cool breeze rising off the river and watch for the bubbles where fish come up to eat bugs.
None of my favorite memories have to do with cell phones, or multi-tasking, or trying to do too much, or worrying about stuff like money or thinking about work.
Instead, they’re all memories where I just realize for a second, “This is it, right here.”
I just finished writing a book with Patrick Walsh about the history of the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins. It was founded by “Diamond Jim” Brady, a grateful patient of Hugh Hampton Young, the father of modern urology.
Diamond Jim loved to go out to eat with friends, and once described his preferred dining style this way: “Whenever I sit down to a meal, I always make it a point to leave just four inches between my stomach and the edge of the table. And then, when I can feel ‘em rubbin’ together pretty hard, I know I’ve had enough.”
Clearly, the man ate too much, but he knew how to live. He loved people, and people loved him back.
That’s what it’s all about. This is it, right here.
©Copyright Janet Farrar Worthington