With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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On a warm summer afternoon not long ago, my friend Brian and I were sitting on the lawn in front of my apartment. It was Friday, and, as usual, I hadn’t crossed off many items on my to-do list for the week. I had my laptop outside, but I couldn’t concentrate, partly because it was finally sunny after several days of tiresome drizzle, but mostly because Brian kept interrupting me. He would note the fat squirrel watching us hopefully from a tree, tell me a story about his literature students, or pose a philosophical question. At some point it occurred to me that I don’t get to see Brian often. He lives on the other side of the country and was here in LA visiting my roommate Liz, with whom he’s had an on-again-off-again relationship for the past few years. Brian had coaxed me out to the lawn, a pleasant patch of grass and trees I’d never bothered to make use of before. I was always scrambling to get my life in order, and soon I would go back to scrambling, but for now I shut my laptop and enjoyed the sunshine with Brian.
One of the things we talked about was a deep-rooted social anxiety we share. Human interactions scare us and seem fraught with misunderstandings. We both can ruminate endlessly about once having possibly said the wrong thing to someone somewhere, and we’re often so busy worrying that we forget to appreciate what’s happening now. Brian said that when he was in high school — a time of misery and confusion for him — he’d found a quote that he liked while doing a reading assignment for school. It went more or less like this: Some people look for happiness as if it were a button that’s fallen off the dresser. He cut out the quote and brought it home to show his mother, and they talked about what it meant: that happiness isn’t a thing you can go looking for, because it’s always right there, and how silly it is that we think of happiness as something we can grasp like a button and carry around with us.
I could tell that Brian remembered this conversation with his mother vividly, that it had been one of those moments when he and his mother had made a real connection. The mental picture the quote invoked was vivid too: of a person groping frantically in the dark amongst the dust bunnies, his back turned to the world. And even though that image was kind of depressing, Brian had a look of elation as he recalled discovering that quote, and bringing it to his mother, and having that conversation with her.
Brian’s mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years earlier. She was now far beyond remembering anything. She didn’t even know that Brian was her son.
When Liz came home from work, Brian and I told her about the quote. Brian said that he’d carried it around with him for years, on the original scrap of paper he’d cut from the school reading assignment. Then it had disappeared one day, and though he’d looked for it, he hadn’t seen it since.
“I wish I could find that quote again,” he said.
It was quiet for a moment, and then Liz asked, “Did you look under the dresser?” We all laughed.
The next morning Brian’s mother died in her sleep.
I believe I have found the elusive quote that is at the center of Maraya Cornell’s essay “The Button.” It’s by W. Beran Wolfe: “If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that had rolled under the radiator, striving for it as a goal in itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours of each day.”
Maraya Cornell’s essay “The Button” [October 2006] describes a conversation she had with author Brian Buckbee, whose work has also appeared in The Sun. After seeing the essay in print, Buckbee wrote us the following letter. It wasn’t intended for publication, but he gave us permission to print it:
Because of “The Button,” I have been marveling about art this past month:
My mother had Alzheimer’s.
I wrote a story about my mother.
The Sun published the story [“Dear Me,” December 2004].
I went to Los Angeles to visit my ex-girlfriend.
Because my ex was working, I spent a day with her roommate Maraya, and I told her about my mother.
I got the news at 5 A.M. the next morning that my mother had died.
My ex and I went for a walk that morning, and by the time we’d returned, her roommate had written an essay about my mother and me.
I read the essay and was moved. “You should send this to The Sun,” I said.
She sent you the essay, and you published it in your October 2006 issue.
I sent the October issue to my mother’s sister. She was so moved by the essay she couldn’t speak.
Thanks for providing a place where my mother can live on.