The woman in the café in a small Spanish town had thick, gnarly hands. Two of her sons, big, burly and dark, were serving customers – men who would sit and brood over their shots of espresso as the day began.
Rose Cullis, a Toronto playwright and high-school drama and English teacher, couldn't get the woman out of her mind. She was so happy. Despite the dour setting and the obvious, hard-working life the woman had endured, she wore a "tender, eyelet sweater," Ms. Cullis recalls. She had the look of someone who took a girlish interest in her appearance, someone who hadn't let age and experience and disappointment grind her down.
I know – that would have captured my attention too.
And so began for Ms. Cullis a 10-year rumination that resulted in The Happy Woman, a play that made its debut last week in Toronto. Its title is as simple – glib almost – as a bromide, but the examination of the ability to be happy, especially for women, is thought-provoking.
I often think that I should have all the answers about happiness, given that I write this column, that books and studies on the subject litter my desk and fill up my inbox. I should be a perpetually happy happiness guru since I'm armed with all the data. You'd think we could all design a perfect life with all the current well-being guidance.
But while research points to some truths – hey, bike commuting is going to be my new spring thing – it almost always leaves me unmoved. Ah yes, I will think, but they're talking about people in general, and I'm not a group. Like you, I'm a whirling, amorphous cloud of individual experiences and influences, disappointments, triumphs and needs. What makes me happy is not necessarily what's going to make you happy, no matter what the experts say.
Which is why the observation of the individual – and why or how that person appears happy – is so much more edifying. I have often thought about my maternal grandmother – she was that Spanish woman in the café for me – because her life was not always easy, and yet, widowed in her early 50s and living in a small apartment in Montreal, she was content in a way I could never fathom when I was younger.
Art such as The Happy Woman brings us inside the lives of people we might observe from a distance and lets us see how they have (or have not) found their peace. It's a safe and acceptable form of nosy voyeurism.
The lead character, Margaret (Barbara Gordon), is inspired by the woman Ms. Cullis saw in the café. She's in her 60s and appears perfectly content. But, as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that the family holds disturbing secrets. She remembers her marriage to her late husband as happy, but was it? She has a daughter, Cassie (Maev Beaty), in her late 20s, who is filled with angst, desperately seeking an elusive equilibrium.
"I seem to be the one stuck knowing what I don't want to know," she laments. She sleeps around. She's a stripper, acting out bizarre performances in an effort to reveal the truths she knows and can't speak of – yet.
"Your rules [of marriage]allowed you to have sex with a man who didn't care about you, who got angry when you were sick," she tells her mother during one outburst.
Margaret also has a daughter-in-law, Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet), who is heavily pregnant and gripped with terrible anxieties. I have always thought that someone should write a manual on how to have a happy pregnancy. It's assumed that pregnant women are all "glowing" like Botticelli beauties, the picture of abundance, purpose and fecundity – all happy things – but few talk about the feelings of panic and dread.
What mother hasn't worried about the health of her unborn child as Stasia does? It's the ol' 10-toes-and-10-fingers anxiety. And then there's the one about how (and whether) the rising bun will ever emerge from the oven.
More than anything, what Ms. Cullis, 54, has captured well is the different ways women search for happiness at various stages in their lives.
Happiness in youth is fraught with worries – about appearance, sexuality, motherhood, fertility. Ms. Cullis, who has two grown sons, drew material from her earlier years. "When I look back to when my sons were little, I think of it as happy, but I wasn't processing it that way at the time. I was angry at the demands," she says in an interview. In her play, pregnant Stasis says, "Maybe I'm happy and I just can't tell."
And when we're older? There's that research about the positivity factor: that our brains dwell more on good things than on bad ones as we age. Is that it? "When the actors started to play Margaret, they were interpreting her as a Stepford wife. But if I thought her happiness wasn't genuine, I wouldn't have been so fascinated," Ms. Cullis says.
The character's memory of her husband as someone who made her happy reminded me of women I have known whose marriages became glorious only when their husbands had died. Does grief play tricks on us or cause us to dwell on what was good?
I was also reminded of that scene in On Golden Pond, when Chelsea (Jane Fonda) complains about her difficult father (played by her real one, Henry Fonda) to her mother (Katharine Hepburn), who promptly slaps her on the cheek and reminds her that she's talking about the man who is the love of her life. (Daughters will never know their fathers as their mothers do, even though they think they understand them intimately.)
Margaret has a tendency to remain present and grounded in the physical world, noticing the blueness of the sky, the sound of her breath, the humour of the cat. It's a happiness habit that Ms. Cullis has noticed in many people.
Meanwhile, Cassie's willingness to confront the truth makes her an optimist. She may not have found happiness yet, but she is determined to, even if that means embarrassing herself in her performance art or confronting the mother she adores. She will trudge through the jungle of her truth with the certainty that a clearing lies ahead.
"You can know things about your past and about your true nature, and you can still be happy," Ms. Cullis says. "It's possible to integrate all of it into your narrative."
The answer she holds out is simple. You can be the individual you are and find your own happiness script.