I just read Molly Ringwald's nicely unexpected op-ed about John Hughes in today's New York Times. In it, Ringwald, who starred as a teenager in Hughes' most influential movies, says not only the things you think she'd say—that Hughes was a funny and generous mentor who changed her life—but also some things you wouldn't: that Hughes had a "heavy heart...prone to injury" and that "his grudges were almost supernatural things, enduring for years, even decades."
I was reminded of a funeral I went to recently. The service was led by an Irish priest who did two things I didn't anticipate: He made us laugh (nobody understands the resurrection, he says, "except God and a few Irish people") and he made me think.
"When someone dies," he said, "you don't just have to remember the good things. People have good stuff, but they also have other stuff. And sometimes the other stuff is much more interesting."
I loved that so much. The richness of a person isn't in his or her saintly qualities—the loving-wife-and-mother, pillar-of-the-community, devoted-family-man stuff of every newspaper obituary—but in their complexity and flawed charms. Like those of Nancy Lee Hixson of Danville, Ohio, whose unforgettable obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer read in part:
"Her homemade cider and wine were reputed to cause sudden stupor. She befriended countless stray dogs, cats, horses and the occasional goat. She was a nemesis to hunters, and an activist of unpopular, but just, causes. In short, she did everything enthusiastically, but nothing well."
The funeral got me thinking (in the narcissistic way that funerals do) about my "other stuff." And frankly, do I have enough of it?
Between my Catholic-school upbringing and the influence of my gentle, self-effacing mother, I've spent a lot of years being a good girl. I give other people the bigger helping. I let drivers into my lane. I listen more than I talk. It all makes me a likable person. And I like to be liked.
But wouldn't it be better to be a fascinating person? A provocative person? Memorable, controversial, prickly?
Asked to describe Katharine Hepburn, her friends and even her family would undoubtedly never have used the word "nice." She was impatient, strong-willed, defiantly egotistical. Who else would title her autobiography Me? She was also riveting and unforgettable.
I don't regret being a thoughtful or generous person; I think I'm both.
I do regret not being honest out of fear of hurting someone's feelings—and in the process, hurting both of us more. I regret getting myself into time-consuming, energy-draining, no-win situations because I didn't like to tell someone "No." I regret being too nice to people who didn't deserve it. I regret the times I didn't stand up for myself, or—much worse—the times I didn't stand up for someone else because I was desperate to avoid confrontation. It makes me feel a little sick to admit all this.
There aren't a lot of physical benefits to getting older (I'm thinking, thinking...okay, can't think of one), but there is one great mental benefit: You stop worrying so much about what people think.
I can't say I've changed overnight, but I am evolving. I still believe—in a non-New Agey kind of way—in putting out more positive energy than negative, but I like to think I no longer do it at the expense of honesty.
At 48-going-on-50, I no longer feel the need to make everyone like me. I launch into random conversations with strangers in check-out lines, not worrying if they might think I'm a little off. I speak my mind more and am definitely less nice to people who don't deserve it.
I don't really think too much about my own funeral (although I'll make sure James Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes is on the soundtrack; that should get everyone working up a good cry). But I hope that by the time my time comes, I'll have given people enough "other stuff" to talk about.
"That Susan," I can only hope they'll say, "she was a lot of things, but she sure wasn't nice."