Last night the girls and I went to see Wonder in theatres. It was kind and strong and real and I have never loved Julia Roberts more. An added thrill was that, in it, Auggie Pulman’s older sister Via stars in my favourite play, “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.
I’d found a copy of the play as a homesick teenager in the library of a strange and lonely boarding school I’d been sent to. I read and reread the play obsessively that year, feeling quite ‘Emily’ myself, a ghost longing for the bygone details of her old, ordinary life. I fell in love with the way Thornton shined-to-gleaming the beauty of the minute: “…clocks ticking… Mama’s sunflowers… food and coffee… newly ironed dresses and hot baths… sleeping and waking up.” The comfort of hearing one’s parents downstairs from a childhood bedroom, walking through the town you know and in which are known, the “sleepwalking” feeling of being very young.
The play is about a woman who, in her death, is allowed to revisit one day of her life. Don’t pick a big occasion, she’s advised by wiser ghosts.
Choose the least important day of your life, it will be important enough.
Emily chooses the day of her twelfth birthday and watches it as if a character off side. Had her parents really ever looked so young? What wonder to have your brother live – live, full stop – but just down the hall! Her husband, then only the boy next door, had he ever been so fresh and nervous and new? Oh, to be “a little bit crazy” and first in love!
“Let’s really look at one another!” Emily’s ghost cries, unheard, to her past self and her mother, together at the kitchen table. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another!”
Emily: I can’t look at everything hard enough! Do any human beings realize life while they live it – every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (Pause.) The Saints and Poets, maybe they do some.
And then they remind us.
When the lights came on in the theatre last night, people smiled. They moved slow and made space for others to pass. Fingers wiped wet eyes, heads shook, laughter rang. Wasn’t that lovely?
The night air was cold and sparkling. My children’s small hands were hot in mine and we slipped as we hurried in the icy parking lot. They were down-parka clumsy as I hoisted their ever-growing bodies into the blue truck I’d driven a since falling in love with the boy down the street at eighteen years old. We circled the block, singing along to the radio and taking in the Christmas lights neighbours had hung.
Together, the girls scrambled from the cab and rushed inside the house that’s withstood us: the living room we wed in, the entryway each baby was brought home through, the chipped trim and stained grout and peeled away stripping that hold so many stories. I took garbage to the curb, nodded at a neighbour who raised her gloved palm. Beautiful night!
Light shone from windows, wonderful and ordinary families inside each little house, each life so infinitely small and impossibly big and so, so fleeting. Inside, we drew an invisible string to the one who was missing from us, calling to remind of our love and to wish sweet dreams. The world was quiet and I traced stars on the backs of my daughters and then I watched a while and silently thanked saints and poets.
Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.