In a lovely column recently, E.J. Montini of The Arizona Republic, recounted his first Christmas with his beloved wife many years ago when they were just starting out in life, too poor to buy lights or ornaments for their little Christmas tree. So they decorated it with popcorn strings and ornaments cut out of construction paper. And his wife, who passed away last year, always said that it was the best Christmas ever.
As he braced himself for his first holiday without her, a reader who was also a recent widower sent him a comforting note. The reader told him that he had remarked to family members that, in his grief, he was convinced that there could be no "happily ever after." His young granddaughter piped up with "What about 'happily ever before'?" The concept resonated with him and with Mr. Montini, too, who found comfort in warm holiday memories of that long ago tiny apartment, the popcorn decorated tree and the love and hope that made his first married holiday so special.
The idea of focusing on our "happily ever before" in dark moments or as we age and lose so many beloved friends and family members as well as certain aspects of ourselves isn't a matter of living in the past. It is more like savoring moments from the past -- moments that may not have seemed quite so positive at the time -- to complete a warm and largely positive life summary that is comforting in the present.
Looking back, what were the events, the people, the situations that were challenging at the time that now spark joy as you look back? In the past, what made you feel comfort? Who brought love to your life? What and who made you laugh? What have you learned from adversity? When you view the long narrative of your life -- the pleasures, the disappointments, the devastating moments and the learning experiences -- what is your overall feeling?
Tapping into our "happily ever before" moments may be especially useful now as we head into our third pandemic year, perhaps impatient with restrictions, perhaps yearning for that time before that seems increasingly distant. We have a choice between comparing then and now and finding the present wanting or letting the lovely memories and perspectives of life before give balance to our lives at a challenging time. We have a choice, too, if our "before" times were rough, between clinging to the sorrow that was and allowing it to overshadow the joy that could be or focusing on the positive aspects of life in the past.
For many of us, our lives have been bittersweet, with an abundance of ups and downs. If we can look back and find the joy between the pain, the humor that can bring light to some dark times, we may find more sweet than bitter in both past and present.
Growing up with a mentally ill, abusive, alcoholic father was not easy nor was it fun having a mother who was too frightened and passive to protect my brother, sister and me from abuse and too focused on my external imperfections ever to know me well. But for all the stress and tears and frightening times, I remember my father's humor, charm and genuine caring during his sober moments and my mother's enthusiasm for my dreams and her encouragement of my close relationship with Aunt Molly, my father's bright, career-oriented sister who never married or had children but whose life was incredibly full. My brother Michael, sister Tai and I never knew which version of our father we would encounter when walking in the door, but we agree that we would not have wanted to grow up without each other or without our sometimes caring, sometimes distressing family of origin. We remember laughter as well as pain, intellectual curiosity and impassioned discussions as well as moments of despair and a sense of being loved amidst the chaos and terror of our shared childhoods.
There is baggage, to be sure, but there is so much else, too: an appreciation for nuances and the complexity of human beings and an inclination to keep moving ahead. None of us were tempted to extend our adolescence as some do, living with parents into young adulthood, putting off learning to drive, not focusing on the future. We were out into the world and on our different life paths early on. We worked our various ways through school. And eventually we all found ourselves in helping professions: my brother as a physician, my sister as a nurse and myself as a psychotherapist and writer of self-help books and articles. We look back on an increasingly distant past as a time filled will humor and horror, valuable life lessons, and guerrilla training in resilience and in compassion.
As I contend with the isolation and intermittent loneliness of the pandemic, I am comforted by both present realities and warm memories of loving relationships. I treasure family relationships and those of friends, especially those relationships stretching back in time to a shared youth. My loved ones all live at a distance, all in different states. The visits we once enjoyed have been precluded by pandemic realities, but we're warmed by the memories we've made together: long talks with my treasured friend Mary; celebrating some holidays and life in general with my beloved friend Tim; laughing with and enjoying the support of my college friends Georgie and Jeanne and their wonderful husbands; sharing so many feelings and experiences with Pat, my friend since kindergarten; savoring the Maui surf with my sister Tai, who remembers our time together there as "the absolute happiest week of my life!"; delightful discussions with my brother Mike, fun times with his wife Jan and his children Maggie, 12 and Henry, 9, who are growing up to be truly good people.
I also enjoy happily ever before memories of relationships lost: my cousin Caron, whom I loved and admired all her life; my first serious boyfriend Mike, a wonderfully kind and gentle man whom I took for granted fifty years ago and whose upbeat letters and quiet emotional support I have missed greatly since his death in 2018; the caring and enduring relationships with three college roommates Cheryl, Lorraine and Lorene who all died way too soon; the joy of singing with my friend Marie, who taught me to open my throat and my heart in song, and who, tragically, was murdered while still in her twenties; and Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, my most demanding college journalism professor who became a lifelong mentor and beloved friend.
Especially now, as I face the losses and limitations of aging, I find comfort in my long marriage with Bob and in our memories of our younger selves -- memories of getting up before dawn to run several miles together, of discovering each other's favorite music together, of adopting our first cat Freddie who was a great life companion for seventeen years, of making a home together. It is immensely comforting to be with someone who remembers my young, vigorous self who could run for miles and who danced into young middle age. And he can laugh ruefully with me at the present surprise of our age-related limitations.
And I think "What a blessed life I have had and have to this day!"
The comfort and wisdom gleaned from our "happily ever before" times can help us through the uncertainties of the present. This is a time of political and philosophical divisiveness. It is a time of a pandemic that threatens our health and our lives. It is a time, for many of us, when most of our lives are in the past with less time left in the future to continue to savor life and new discoveries and to watch with wonder as new generations come of age.
And yet...add up the blessings of the happily ever before times and our imperfect present: we have lived more joyously than not, more fully than we once imagined possible. And we have loved, enjoying so many complex and wonderful variations of love in our lives!