I recently was thinking about what makes people happy. So often, I see people obsessing about designer pocketbook, fancy cars, bigger houses and the like, wasting precious time. Because I feel I have so little free time, the last thing I want to be doing is spending my time obsessing over material things. I don’t own fancy pocketbooks, I don’t care about designer clothes and I live in a modest house. I pick things and do things because I like them, not because everyone has one or does it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disheveled, well not most days anyway, but I care little about material goods and wish more people did too.
A decade ago a friend ’s father died. It was sudden and sad. Gus was in his late fifties, a hard working jolly man who provided well for his family. His wife and three children benefited nicely from his toils. He didn’t have a cushy job; instead, he rose well before dawn driving more than an hour to run his lucrative luncheonette in the industrial section of the South Bronx. It was a very small, hot place that served many. My friend and I visited it when we could, escaping from our bland college cafeteria food for some of her father’s juicy hot pastrami on rye sandwiches. He sweated over the grill for hours racing to complete all the day’s orders with only one long-time faithful employee, Emanuel, who was reported to have built a villa for his family back in his native Central American village with the sweet earnings he made at the luncheonette. Gus’s day was not done before scrubbing the place shiny and visiting the Hunts Point Market to replenish what he needed for the next day’s labor. Once completed, Gus would make the long drive back home in the dark to his affluent suburban neighborhood where he kept his family nested in their “villa,” a large stately colonial worlds away from the Bronx luncheonette.
My friend’s mother, Betty was a spoiled housewife who filled her days with superfluous niceties. She shopped incessantly having to have the latest Gucci pocketbooks, Prada shoes and dresses from Neiman Marcus. She was very manicured and coiffed, her hair stiffly done weekly by the salon du jour. I always wondered how much hair spray it took to make her hair so unmovable.
I remember visiting her house a few times and only being allowed in the kitchen and basement where the kids were relegated. At 20, I found that odd. My friend explained that no one was ever allowed to step into the other rooms, even her father. Her mother forbade it. The living room in the house was gated off so no one could enter and mess it, saving it for some royal company that didn’t exist. The furniture was neatly wrapped in custom-made clear plastic slipcovers. I was glad I was relegated to the basement where the old couch stood plush and soft, unwrapped. Her dining room was as an altar to the Lennox china and Waterford crystal that stood on display. She had little time for her children, providing the necessities, keeping them well fed and dressed. She worried more about her Persian rugs staying clean, her crystal chandeliers staying shiny and what her friends would think about the new Mercedes she was driving.
Betty was critical of others as well. I remember she would complain to my girlfriend and me about how we dressed when we visited from college, and she was always critical about people’s boyfriends and how they lived their lives. She was lucky having it all provided by Gus, a faithful, hardworking husband who wanted nothing more than to fulfill his wife’s every wish. However, little did Gus know, his quest was doomed. His wife could never be made happy on the path she was on, as she had an insatiable desire for wealth and status. She was swept up in a material world not knowing the meaning of true happiness. I felt bad for Betty, and I felt worse for my girlfriend who knew nothing different and was headed down the same path as her mother, impressed by status and emptiness. I tried to show my friend what really mattered in life, but it was hard as her values were etched into her personality through years of example.
One day, my friend’s father died. The family was devastated. With Gus’s sudden death, Betty spiraled into a period of grief and despair as her world came tumbling down. I remember his funeral well. Betty dressed in her finest designer black woolen suit, hair shiny and stiff like a helmet, wept loudly and uncontrollably before us, her fellow mourners, something I had never witnessed before. She didn’t know how she would survive without Gus to bolster her in the society she knew.
Gus did not leave her penniless by any means. She was provided for and could live out her days in her large house with her children. But as time wore on, my friend and her siblings married and started lives of their own. Betty grew lonely finding little satisfaction in the life she now led as a widow. I periodically asked my friend how her mother was doing. Most of the time her replies were the same. She was okay, but lonely.
Eventually with her children’s insistence, Betty began venturing out of the house and traveling back to her place of birth, Greece, where she visited with relatives and friends she had long lost touch with. One day, a cousin risking rejection offered to introduce Betty to a friend, a man who was newly divorced and looking for some companionship. Betty was game even though it was long before the customary five year mourning period had ended. She was done with her black clothes and self-imposed solitude. She was on her way to a new chapter in her life.
A few years later, while on vacation to Greece, I made plans to meet my girlfriend who was also visiting there. We met for lunch at a small seaside tavern where we lingered over good food and wine as she filled me in on her family’s affairs. Her mother had moved to Greece permanently and was living in an apartment up the block, and more notably, her mother was now living with a man, unmarried. I nearly fell off my seat. The woman who cared so much about what was proper and what the neighbor’s thought had chosen a life of “sin” as she would have characterized in the past. I couldn’t believe it. My girlfriend urged me to come up and visit her mother who she said would be thrilled to see me. I was skeptical as Betty cared little about me in the past, finding no use for my down-to-earth ways and virtual disinterest in her Lenox, Waterford and Gucci. But, I went anyway curious about Betty’s new beau. My girlfriend warned me her mother had changed. “You won’t believe it is the same woman whose 4,000 square foot house was wrapped in clear plastic slipcovers,” my girlfriend warned. I doubted her, really I did. But what I found surprised me.
Betty now lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment with her new companion, an energetic down-to-earth man who cared little about material possessions. He had introduced Betty to a whole new world. The apartment was clean and lovely, but there were no plastic slipcovers to be found. In fact, there was no Lennox, Waterford, Gucci, or anything of Betty’s past life. My girlfriend reported her mother had given away or sold all of her things from her life in New York. Betty was almost unrecognizable. Her hair was loose and free flowing. She hadn’t seen a beauty salon in weeks! She had blossomed in the simplicity of her new life, uncomplicated by the social constraints and pressures with which she had previously tortured herself and her family. She was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt with no identifiable designer labels. Her perpetually pursed face had softened. She looked beautiful and radiant, happy for the first time I had ever seen.
Betty served us dessert on mismatched plates and silverware, something that would have given her hives in the past. I thought maybe Betty had been hit on the head. She talked of her life in Greece and how together with her companion, they took long walks, swam in the ocean and fished, how they traveled, snorkeled and did things I could never imagine Betty doing, like skiing and baiting a fish hook! She had changed, and she found happiness without any of the material things that preoccupied her before. I was happy for Betty, and I was happy for my friend who now had a better example of what life was really about. However, as I prepared to leave, I couldn’t help feeling sad for Gus who knew none of this true happiness. Gus who loved his family dearly and had done everything he knew to make them happy, had failed, and in the process had lost his own life. It was a tragedy. I wondered if Betty recognized the difference and if she realized she had lost so many years to emptiness. As my friend and I prepared to leave, I caught a glimpse that Betty might have learned what was important in life. She stopped and said, “Don’t let the sun go down without having some fun today. Promise me you girls won’t worry so much about your windows being clean or your houses being the tidiest, sit and play with your children before they grow up and don’t want to play with you any longer,” she stated before bidding us farewell. I took her comment as a good sign. I think Gus was happy smiling somewhere in the heavens for he now knew his family was on their way to finding true happiness. Maybe all wasn’t in vain.