I have always been haunted by a line in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.
In the play, Emily, a young woman who has recently died in childbirth, accepts an opportunity to leave the hereafter and re-visit a day in her life.
As an observer, the “deceased” Emily sees her mother, young and pretty, bustling about the kitchen and calling her daughter down to breakfast. When a twelve-year-old Emily enters the scene, the mother, while continuing her kitchen chores, chats about Emily’s birthday presents and a special gift dropped off earlier that morning by George, the boy next door. The “deceased” Emily notices that as her mother speaks, she never looks at the “live” Emily. Knowing the future and losses her mother will face in the years to come, Emily yearns to warn that time is limited and beg her mother to pay attention to small moments, the little things, the true gifts that life offers.
“Oh, Mama just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.”
That’s the line that haunts me.
Mama, busy in the activities and pressures of everyday life, tends to the needs of her children and husband, her neighbors and friends, never stopping long enough to seize moments she may never have again, moments to share in the existence of those she loves.
Too often I am Mama in Thornton’s play. I am guilty of the same sin, the same negligence, the same distraction. I have spent too much of my adult life absorbed in the mundane and the ordinary.
If Emily, “temporarily invisible,” were to view days in my life, what would she see? Single mom with four sons and a full-time teaching position. Certainly not someone with not much free time to fill.
Umpteen soccer games, band recitals and graduations. Back yard parties, lots of them. Sleep-overs, ski week-ends, school trips to zoos and aquariums. A tiny black puppy. Christmas. Birthday parties. Teaching the boys to drive. Weddings. The arrival of grandchildren.
My physical body was always there. I clapped and cheered with the rest of the crowd. I chaperoned and drove car pool; made cookies for the bake sale and decorated the gym for the school dance; negotiated with used-car salesmen and ironed tuxedo shirts for prom night. At my desk, well before the first bell, I graded papers and wrote lesson plans. I got the student newspaper to press, almost always on time.
No doubt I got things done. But my brain was often elsewhere. Had I ordered enough pizza for the after-game party? Who gets invited to graduation exercises when I am allotted only three tickets? How do I entertain six ten-year old boys at a sleep-over? Where should I sit Aunt Mary at the wedding? What to buy the grandkids for their birthdays?
Emily was saddened by the “blindness” of the living, by people too busy with the unimportant to notice what really matters. The narrator of the play tells her that few, except maybe saints or poets, actually realize the meaning of life.
Alone now in my big house, I have the time to reflect on my own “blindness.” I recognize that real living had little to do with Christmas mornings, pizza parties, milestone birthdays, vacations, or first cars.
No, it was the moments spent alone with each child, sitting on the floor alongside his bed, often late at night, listening as he poured out his fears, shared a school or work story, or asked what I thought about serious issues of the day. Those talks sometimes lasted for hours.
I am sorry for the parts of my life that I rushed through. But grateful for the mornings after midnight talks, when I went to work bleary-eyed, but happy.
Today, I spend little time with my children, grown men living their own lives. No more soccer games or long talks in the night. However, when we do get time together, I remember Emily’s plea to her mother to “…just look at me one minute.”
I try to look for a lot more than a minute.