Tolstoy was only half right: while it is true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, not all happy families are all alike.
Our sushi workshops frequently parachute me into the homes of families, usually those with young children, and, more often than not, into affluent homes, where families can afford to create one-of-a-kind sushi parties. (Part of the proceeds from these private workshops go toward subsidizing the work we do in public schools and libraries, high-risk communities, and charities that carry the workload of extending open arms to the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. It is our own small way of what we call “rolling it forward”, and Sushi Making For The Soul was founded with this in mind.)
When Charley was asked what she wanted to do for her 10th birthday, there was no question: a sushi party with her besties and her younger sister, Paige. It was an all-out Japanese affair: from the decked-out dining room, to the traditional kimono dresses and sun umbrellas, and finished with Charley’s mom’s jaw-dropping home-made sushi cupcakes.
Charley and co.
From the moment I entered their home, there was unencumbered enthusiasm, Paige in particular wild with anticipation. Charley and her friends were savvy, smart, and, on this day, created sushi most adults would have envied. They were also unusually literate about issues around food insecurity and literacy. But there was also something else, something particular about the energy in the home—something that struck me as unique, and which I couldn’t put my finger on until days later. And this brings me back to the opening line of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina.
At workshops for children and young people, which comprises a third of the private events we do, I often feel like a sociologist working the “field”. From downtown condos to palatial residences on the Bridal Path or Rosedale; from dining rooms to church basements, backyards and libraries, I am making mental notes and mobilizing some inner Geiger counter to collect “data”- mostly qualitative- about the nature of happiness. The subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of a comparatively happy child has become an unofficial area of study for me. And having engaged with so many such children, I’m confident I have a good intuitive feel for it.
At Charley’s, there was a genuine sense of delight and curiosity, yes, but these qualities exuded not only from the children, but also her parents, Elyse and Dax, as well. Between Charley and Paige and their parents, it was a house filled with a touching light and warmth. To be frank, one of the better examples in recent sushi workshops of an examined family life, driven with an animated joyfulness at its core.
Paige (8 years old)
So, afterwards, I did something I never do: I asked Charley’s parents for insights into the “secrets of familial happiness”. I think it gave them pause, something more to chew on than just a California Roll. It is in our nature to get to the bottom of why we are unhappy and we do so with uncommon zeal. By the billions of dollars, therapists and pharmaceutical companies have banked on this quest. But how to articulate something so mysterious, possibly elusive, as happiness? After all, traps are sprung to catch rats, not kittens.
Elyse grew up in a Jewish household in Toronto and Dax in a Christian home in Sarnia. Both come from families with deeply-entrenched religious and cultural traditions, but Elyse is matter-of-fact about why they came together: “same values” that allows them to “make it work”. Marriage as a verb and not some rusty noun on cinder blocks in the not-so-proverbial matrimonial junkyard. “We also both have wonderful, loving, supportive families. My kids are so lucky that both sets of grandparents adore each other.” No question the relief that comes from averting this universal kind of familial anxiety. Most of us know what it feels like to gather with extended family in a space that is wrought with tension and distrust- think Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with the in-laws. The ramifications on Charley and Paige would have been predictable if their grandparents didn’t like each other. Invariably, rancor prevails, gets passed on like a germ, and modelling a mature look-how-famously-we-all-get-along becomes all too rare.
Bell Hooks, in her book All About Love: New Vision, explains what happens to the modern family when parents choose to make diametrically opposite choices from their own parents when it comes to marriage and raising children. Without knowing, they swing the pendulum the other way and model relationships to their own children and partners after that of their grandparents. It’s a two-generation cycle, she suggests, repeating itself without much self-awareness, without an effective self-critical apparatus. It is happiness hammered out of resistance. But we also know that the other way- the “linear” or imitative marriage model- fails almost fifty percent of the time in our country. That Elyse and Dax choose to follow an imitative model is revealing. That Elyse is also a refugee lawyer offers another insightful slant: “In my job, there is often great despair. But I find happiness when I am able to help others at their darkest times.” We do that, many of us; we come alive, a fire is lit in some prehistoric part of ourselves, when we genuinely offer hope to others in the face of crushing despair. Hence, the adage she and Dax follow to the letter: “a parent is only as happy as his/her most unhappy child”- a great nugget about parenting if ever there was one. At the heart of it is empathy, which has always played the most defining role in creating a happy family, a healthy community, a better world for our children.
Perhaps, it is my own comparatively unhappy childhood that has me seeking for answers from parents like Elyse and Dax. And perhaps it is the same reason why I find so much elemental joy in engaging with children like Charley and Paige in the sushi-making process. It’s child’s play, redux.
I have no idea.
What I do know is this: a family like this one is happy in its own way and for seekers like me it might just be best to let it remain inscrutable. But for Charley and her family, it appears every birthday will always be a very happy one.