In John Irving's book “The World According to Garp,” the main character’s son mishears the warning to avoid the “undertoad” while at the beach. Garp, a writer and the boy’s father, embraces the “undertoad” as a metaphor for that beast of calamity that sometimes we fear sits just under the surface of our lives.
I don’t know what the opposite of undertoad would be. What would we call that feeling of optimism or happiness we sometimes feel lurking in the layers of our lives? It needs a name.
I don’t have one. I can only describe it as a firm recognition of the
good in our lives and an accompanying feeling of thankfulness and joy. Like the undertoad, it is there but we don’t always see it, and we certainly don’t control it. It just is.
All of us have little things in our memories that can make us smile or cry. While some of them do coincide with momentous life occasions, most are just part of our everyday lives. Images that shape who we are and what we are.
I can still remember when my oldest son Michael was barely a toddler and I took him on a sunny day to experience a little creek in Valdosta. I don’t even remember where it was. I do remember changing his wet diaper after he played in the water and kissing his warm stomach. That was almost 33 years ago. It could have been yesterday.
Vacations are a perfect example of life’s ability to both delightfully surprise us or make us wish you had never left home.
Most humans would agree it is impossible to plan joy or happiness, but we still attempt to make that happen through our two weeks, three weeks or month of vacation.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but usually it’s not always a total failure or a visit to Shangri-La. And human memory has a great way of shaping events to be better or worse than they actually were. Sometimes even the bad can take on a comical sheen when viewed through the lens of time.
Years ago we stayed at St. George Island, off the coast of Florida, not too far from Apalachicola. Oddly enough, what I remember the most about that trip was our attempt to find the perfect restaurant.
I failed miserably.
I don’t remember what the place was called, which is probably good because I would hate to be sued for libel. The ambience and the food were just terrible; it was so bad we simply had to laugh about it and still do.
Another memory is taking the kids to a little inn at Fernandina Beach. It was one of those places with a mini fridge in it and two double beds, which worked out well because at the time there were just two kids, not four.
We were a young, struggling family then, so the beachside condo with two bedrooms and a real kitchen was out of the question.
That may have been the same trip when crawling Sarah came down with a stomach virus yet still wanted to stay on the beach, her little face bonneted by a sunhat and Michael playing in the waves.
At the time I know it wasn’t magical, but like I said, time plays tricks with memories.
Flash forward and I remember dancing with Anthony in a sunny living room and we still laugh about swinging Joshua in a blanket and singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Yes, in darker moments I hear the thrum of the undertoad, reminding me that bad things can and will happen.
That is life.
But in the lighter moments I can remember a kiss, a laugh, a tickle, a hug. That, too, is life. Pass it on.
Mike Colombo is managing editor of the Rome News-Tribune.