Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
Those are the opening lines in one of my favorite novels, Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups. I just finished re-reading it after about a seven-year hiatus. It was even better than I remembered.
Rebecca is a widow in her mid 50’s and her four children are grown and starting families of their own. She has a sort of mid-life crisis. What is her purpose in life? Is she really happy? At one time she was a slim, lovely young woman who wanted to be a history professor and was working on a thesis about Robert E. Lee. After the untimely death of her husband in a car accident she was so busy being a single parent and running the family business she had no time to stay in shape or read or have friends. She says she feels superficial, but when she explains herself she realizes she really means she feels superfluous to her family, even though the novel makes it clear she is neither superficial or superfluous. Now she wonders what her life would have been like, if instead of marrying the dashing older man she did, and becoming a mother, she had married a scholarly young physics student she was in love with in college and had continued on with her academic career.
Reading Back When We Were Grownups this last week I’ve shed a few tears, perhaps because I too am pondering some of the questions Rebecca was. I am no longer a teacher. My sons are strong, independent men who have lives of their own. What will my new direction in life be? How will I carve out purpose and happiness in a new place and time of life? Rebecca is a person who has a very selective and not always accurate memory of family events–a failing my family frequently points out to me as well.
There are many lines and sections in the book I’ve starred during my past re-readings of it.
When I was eight my aunt gave me a beautiful tall white candle with white lace around it in a spiral. I thought it was so elegant I saved it in my drawer to use on some momentous occasion. One day four years later I came across it in my drawer and it was all yellow and warped and the lace had crumbled. I’d never seen it burning and now I never would. Since then I light my candles any chance I get. I light them by the dozens, all over, all year. Multitudes of candles!
“There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
“All of us love people at least partly for their usefulness.”
“Marriage leads to you knowing more about another person than you should. “
We all dream sometimes how things would have been if we had chosen a different fork in the road.
Back When We Were Grownups ends with Rebecca realizing how rich and rewarding her life has been despite its challenges and the fact that she hasn’t ended up at all where she thought she would. Her family is watching home movies of parties and celebrations and “she saw that she really had been having a wonderful time” all along.
What next? Well I’ve just discovered that Hallmark has made a movie of the book Back When We Were Grownups and I’m going to watch it this afternoon.