14 August 2003
I asked my mother, a voracious reader, if she'd read "Seabiscuit" (my latest
passion). I'm loving this book and have decided that I don't want to see the movie until
I've finished reading the book. She had not yet read the book and I began to tell her some
of the things that have excited me about reading it when she interrupted me.
"He lived across the street from us in San Francisco, you know," she said.
Charles Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit. He apparently lived part of the time in a
penthouse directly across the street from the little flat where I grew up. My mother had
become friends with his housekeeper.
This was a story I'd never heard before.
She tells me that when my sister was a baby (which would have been 1947), she was
walking past the apartment building where Howard kept a residence and stopped to talk with
his housekeeper. Howard was out of town and the housekeeper invited her up to look at the
We lived on Leavenworth St., between Union and Filbert Streets. The window of our
dining room had a direct unobstructed view of Coit Tower. From where Howard sat, atop the
tall apartment building across the street, he could see from bridge to bridge--from the
Bay Bridge past Coit Tower, around Fisherman's Wharf, all the way to the Golden Gate
He also could see right into our back yard.
We lived in a bottom flat of a building that had three flats. Our back yard was a tiny
patch of concrete with a raised bed where my mother tried planting a few vegetables
occasionally. She hung her clothes out on clothes lines which stretched from our house to
the flat of the neighbors. As kids, my sister and I would occasionally ride our tricycles
around on the concrete, or play house under the stairs of the adjoining flat. Stairs went
down to the dirt-floored basement.
And Howard could look down into our yard and borrow small pieces of our lives.
The housekeeper told my mother that Howard would stand at his window, high atop the
penthouse and look at us playing. "People think that happiness is up here," he
said to the housekeeper, "...but it's really down there," he said, pointing to
I don't know why that story tickles me. Perhaps because I'm so engrossed in his story
at present and to find out in the middle that while our lives didn't exactly directly
touch, there was some sort of connection.
Perhaps it's just thinking about the nature of happiness.
When I thought about Howard's statement, I remembered my grandmother, a woman
relentlessly determined to be unhappy. She felt she'd been dealt a bad hand because she
knew God intended for her to be rich. Instead, she married a man of modest means, thwarted
his opportunities for advancement, and until she was no longer able to live by herself,
lived in a two room apartment in San Francisco, never having a bedroom to call her own
(she slept in the living room; my grandfather slept in the dining room).
She pinned her hopes and dreams on the last wills and testaments of her richer friends
and as each one died and left her nothing in their wills, she became more bitter about her
lot in life. It was particularly difficult for her when my godmother died. She had been
married to my grandmother's cousin and, while not exactly wealthy, wasn't exactly poor
either. On her death, the material goods which my grandmother expected to be left to her
were left to my mother, who had befriended her during her lifetime and especially at the
end of her life.
Maybe remembering my grandmother is one reason why I place so little value on
"things." While it is true that I live in a house which could qualify as a junk
shop, surrounded by more "things" than anyone has any right to own, it occurred
to me recently that were someone to break into the house, they would find little worth
stealing--there is little of real monetary value. And pretty much nothing someone
might steal would be a tremendous loss for me. There would be the loss of my sence of
personal security, but the things? They're only "things."
Ironically, as I was thinking about all of this today, I received one of those things
that get passed around to everybody on everyone's e-mail list. It was one of the few
"sweet" things that I chose to share with a few others on my own e-mail list
(removing, of course, the promise that "a miracle" would happen if I passed it
along to 7 other people within the next 10 minutes!)
Basically this was a happy old woman's reflections on what, despite the pains and
traumas of her life, made her happy.
"Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or
not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged...it's how I arrange my mind. I
already decided to love it. It's a decision I make every morning when I wake up. I
have a choice; I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts
of my body that no longer work, or get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do.
Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open I'll focus on the new day and all
the happy memories I've stored away ... just for this time in my life.
Old age is like a bank account ... you withdraw from what you've put in .. So, my
advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories .
Remember the five simple rules to be happy:
1. Free your heart from hatred.
2. Free your mind from worries.
3. Live simply.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less.
Good words to live by. I hope that, as Charles Howard looked down from his penthouse at
a young mother playing with her two young children, he managed to find some happiness, in
spite of his wealth.