I was looking through some old files recently and came across a great story by Tennessee Williams. He was, of course, one of America’s most beloved playwrights, known to many for the stark humanity of his characters.
My parents actually met while performing his beautiful play, The Glass Menagerie. She was Laura and he was The Gentleman Caller, who obviously kept calling.
But back to this story. Comfy?
There once was a young Russian boy named Jakob Brodsky, whose father owned a bookstore. The elder Brodsky wanted his son to go to college, but Jakob just wanted to marry his childhood sweetheart.
Soon after the boy had started college, his father fell ill and died, so Jakob returned home, arranged for the funeral and married his love, an outgoing French girl named Lila.
The young couple then moved into the apartment above the bookstore, and Jakob took over the business.
The lifestyle suited him perfectly, but Lila wasn’t happy. She was restless and ambitious, and she longed for adventure.
She found it one day when a talent agent came to town and enticed her to tour Europe as a singer with a vaudeville company.
Jakob was devastated.
But as they parted, he reached into his pocket and handed her the key to the front door of the bookstore.
“You’d better keep this,” he told her, “because you’ll want it someday. Your love is not so much less than mine that you can get away from it. You will come back sometime, and I will be waiting.”
To escape the pain he felt, Jakob withdrew deep into his bookstore and took to reading as someone else might have taken to drink.
He spoke little, did little, and could most times be found at the large desk near the rear of the shop, immersed in his books while he waited for his love to return.
15 years later, on a cold, December evening, she finally returned.
But when Jakob rose from the reading desk that had been his place of escape for all that time, he didn’t take the love of his life for more than an ordinary customer. “Do you want a book?” he asked.
Lila was shocked that he didn’t recognize her, but she composed herself and replied, “Yes, thank you, but I’ve forgotten the name of it.”
Then she told him a story of childhood sweethearts: A story of a newly married couple. Who lived in an apartment. Above a bookstore.
A story of a young wife who left to seek her fortune, and who enjoyed great success, but who could never relinquish the key her husband gave her when they parted.
She told him the story she thought would bring him to himself.
But his face showed no recognition. Gradually she realized that he had lost touch with his heart’s desire, that he no longer knew the purpose of his waiting and grieving.
Now all he remembered was the waiting and grieving itself.
“You remember it, you must remember it! The story of Lila and Jakob?” she pleaded.
After a long, bewildered pause, he said, “There is something familiar about the story. I think I have heard it somewhere…It comes to me that it is something by Tolstoi.”
Dropping the key, she fled the shop.
And Jakob returned to his desk, unaware that the love he waited for had come and gone.
This is a summary of Tennessee Williams’, “Something by Tolstoi,” which was written in 1931, but it speaks a timeless truth about loss and how we tend to process it –doesn’t it?
Jakob dulled the pain of his separation from Lila by absorbing himself in the escape provided by his books.
And isn’t that what we do…
When we over-indulge in various forms of entertainment, in the latest gadgets, in mood-altering substances and behaviors?
Compulsive shopping. TV marathons. Hours of Web surfing, Unhealthy relationships. Yet another grande frappucino with whipped cream…and on and on?
But what is it we’re grieving?
Are we grieving a broken trust from long ago? Our own unrealized potential? Perhaps the daily news? Or could it be something even more primordial and basic that drives us to seek our favorite forms of escape?
What is it that makes even a person who is affluent, successful and admired seek to distract himself with ever greater and more elaborate amusements? Could it be that we’re grieving a loss at once bigger and subtler than those of this world?
Prehaps, like Jakob, we’ve holed ourselves up in our back rooms with our “books” (etc.) for so long that, when the object of our heart’s longing is right in front of us, we no longer even recognize it.
“You remember it; you must remember it –the story of Lila and Jakob?” pleaded Lila, while saints and sadhus of every stripe remind us by their presence of a love we’ve long forgotten: “You remember it; you must remember it –the story of the soul and its Source?”
There are as many versions of our story as there probably were books in Brodsky’s shop. Your preferred edition might be the Bible, the Koran or the Bhagavad-gita. Or silence. Or the taste of water. We get to decide.
It’s been my experience that within each can be heard a similar message:
Your waiting and grieving are over.
Readers? I welcome your comments.