I made two friends cry this week. That wasn't my intent. We were at a restaurant halfway between their suburban homes and my city apartment. I had amplified my voice to carry across our table and triumph over louder conversations nearby. But when I revealed what I thought to be a positive story, inspirational, uplifting, the women searched their handbags for Kleenex.
Prior to their tears, I had explained that during a conversation about my life in my 30's, I interrupted that chat with this epiphany: "You know, I just realized something, my 30-year-old self would be thrilled to see how her 80-year-old self turned out." My eyes brightened; I sat upright. I felt triumphant, as if my discovery had been gold instead of a vintage clue.
But my two friends, both in their 60's, were mastering difficult challenges: One was a caregiver for a loved partner, and the other in a single life with limited financial resources. While I admired their accomplishments, each saw their younger self as unhappy.
"There's still time," I rushed to say, lowering my voice to match my contriteness and discourage onlookers' stares. "You have two decades to catch up to me; your lives can still improve in the years ahead." I was careful, desperate to lift their pain and dig myself out from my words' wounds.
After my fumbling apologies, I came up with a second realization, which I served to my tablemates as a mom with a bowl of ice cream, designed to switch tears to smiles. "When I was in my 30's," I said, "my family lived in a neighborhood that I've come to think of as fertile ground. You two are in communities which also have the elements of a nurturing environment: supportive friends, opportunities for growth, and role models."
Thankfully, my companions seemed mollified. So with a movie trailer in my mind, I resurrected for them South Commons, a planned community on Chicago's near south side with a mission to integrate people of different races, incomes, and ages in a variety of housing styles. I included the backstory, how my family -- a husband who was a doctor in training and two children ages five and six-and-a-half -- in 1969 had left a homogeneous suburb to move into a utopian dream. I shared scenes of the unhappy housewife I had been back then, of the sense I was fish-out-of-water in a place that should've felt like home.
I revealed that I was like many women who married in that era (I was 22 at my 1960 ceremony), my life had been sketched out for me: I was to marry a Jewish doctor or lawyer straight out of college, become a teacher (or a nurse if you were Gentile), have two children (one of each gender), and live happily ever after in a suburb populated by duplicates of my family.
I had fulfilled almost all of the directives, but contentment wasn't my reward. The young couple that wed only nine years earlier were each struggling to find clues to their unhappiness.
"My husband thought a different specialty would cure his moods, so he chose a different residency program in the city," I said. "And when I read about the new community advertised in the Sunday real estate sections, I pushed to move there."
My audience of two were absorbed as I shared that in the nearly 10 years we lived in South Commons, I changed from a sorrowful woman to one who was engaged in every activity offered. "I became editor of the community newspaper, producer of the musical theatre, and an activist in local politics," I bragged, polishing my resume as if competing for a top job.
My friends seemed uplifted with my realization, perhaps seeing a brighter path for themselves, so I carefully repeated that my thirty-year-old-self would've been grateful to find her 80-year-old self still writing and now publishing, still organizing, and still protesting inequities. And because I was eager to add a hopeful coda, I reminded them that although my first marriage ended after 30 years, at age 60, my younger self would have been happy that I married again and had a sweet relationship.
Our conversation ended and we returned to our patient plates. But to myself I wondered: What would have happened if my family had never moved to South Commons? What if we had remained in that suburb and I continued as the dispirited woman I was back then? If that question would have been posed to me: How would my 30-year-old self feel about the 80 year old decaying in the suburb? Like the friends I had earlier forced to tears, would I have joined them with my own weeping?