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Senior Woman looking out of a window

seventysomething: Sometimes you don’t want to put on a happy face

Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour has been in the business of airing voices worth listening to for more than 40 years. Recently, we came across Susie Kaufman, a former hospice chaplain and current blogger. Kaufman has a quiet voice that spoke to us and that, we think, might speak to you.

On the way to dinner in Minneapolis recently, a friend and I met Donna, an ancient relic of a woman sweeping grass clippings into a dustpan in her front yard. She wore a pink pinafore and a wig that rested on her head like an affectionate cocker spaniel. Donna invited us to come into her garden, a sea of purple phlox, and even to walk behind the house where tomatoes proliferated despite the rainy summer. This woman made me smile. It was entirely involuntary and got me thinking about all the forced smiles I’ve pasted on my face over the years.

We seventysomethings were born into the thick of mid-century striving and compliance, every day another opportunity to be good and do good. You have only to look at the photographs. We were the little darlings of the post-war American middle class and we had to look the part. We had to look happy.

Do the research in your own photograph albums. Not the digital ones, living untethered in the cloud. Not even the looseleaf ones with slippery plastic sleeves. I mean the frayed volumes of family life where pictures of varying sizes, some sepia, some polaroid, some with scalloped edges, are affixed with adhesive corners to the stiff paper and labeled, for example, “Susie’s sixth birthday, 1951.”

You will notice that the studio shots of your grandparents are serious business. I imagine the women corseting up, the men straightening their collars and cuffs as they get ready to pose for the photographer on the Bowery. No one is smiling. Everyone understands the gravity of the sit. It’s the proof of their arrival, their material heft preserved for posterity. Check out the whipped confection hairdos, the pocket watches.

Now, fast forward 40 or 50 years. The photograph has become more than a record of accomplishment. It is now, above all, an occasion for flaunting family happiness. There is no yelling, no withdrawal of affection on the Kodak Brownie. Everyone is saying cheese.

There is an entire body of thought that views the act of smiling as a spiritual practice. The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that a true smile comes from dwelling in awareness. You don’t wear it like an article of clothing, and it has no utility. It won’t help you ingratiate yourself with your colleagues.

A true smile is simply a response to noticing how remarkable it is that you’re here on the planet. It conveys the sense of being alive, experiencing, all at once, the in here of yourself and the out there of the world. Encountering the gardener in the pink pinafore.

Occasions for smiles of awareness don’t arise on schedule like visits from the wedding photographer wandering the hall, table to table, documenting the bride and groom standing in turn behind each group of overstuffed relatives. They are sometimes mixed with loss.

Recently, on a September day, the grass an end-of-summer green scattered with the first fallen leaves, we ran into an old friend walking out of the cemetery in the Berkshires an idyllic place rich in historic resonance. She wanted to know if we had visited her husband’s grave. “Not recently,” I admitted. “Do you think he’s comfortable in there”? “I hope so,” she answered, with a loving, wide-open grin.

This could be the real estate of our future, we thought out loud, standing on the sidewalk. Entering the gates then, her smile at our backs, we stopped at the grave of our friend, piled with small stones of remembrance.