Saturday, I drove to Knoxville to see my brother and his family, after not seeing them since January. We sat outside on his deck for a few hours talking about work, about COVID-19, mutual friends, books and politics.
As I left, I found myself turning not towards the interstate ramp home but towards the University of Tennessee campus.
I pulled up in front of a nondescript one story shopping center sitting hard beside the east side of campus and walked into Gus’s Good Times Deli, a place I’d not been in more than 30 years.
Gus’s, as it’s colloquially known to generations of UT alumni, had changed little since I pulled up stakes in Knoxville in 1987. A bit cleaner, slightly bigger than it used to be.
I got my turkey and smoked cheddar on pumpernickel, spicy mustard only, and went back to my car. Sitting there with the door open on a sunny day, I took a bite of the steamed sandwich and had a Proustian moment.
It wasn’t just that the sandwich tasted as good as I remembered it — and if you went to UT, you’ll understand how good Gus’s is.
I had an experience of such nostalgia I felt as though I was transported back to being 18 again, to remembering the simple joy of being away from home, of learning to build a life on my own. The cool breeze and the sun made me feel like life was fresh again and the challenges of adulthood lay ahead of me.
I write this because if ever there is a year that calls for small joys, this is it.
For a few years after my mother’s 2014 death, I couldn’t find much happiness. Life was filled with a sense of ennui and a feeling of “is that all there is?” At work, I was going through the motions. I moved back into the house in which I grew up but just felt sad, seeing memories of my parents in every room.
In my case, a few months of therapy with an excellent counselor helped me look at life differently. Instead of expecting my life to feel as it did in the “before” — before my mother got sick, before I was no one’s child anymore, before I moved — or looking for a big payoff of happiness, I learned to take joy in small moments.
Sometimes, it’s baking cookies with a friend, the only person in my COVID bubble except for my husband. Sometimes it’s a run on an unseasonably warm day. Recently, it came from being in Gus’s.
2020 has been a year unlike any we’ve experienced. A once-in-a-century pandemic has come with attendant health and economic worries, including lost jobs and whole industries drying up. With those, a flood of evictions has begun and many Tennesseans will doubtless be homeless.
The need for social distancing and isolation means we have less ability to lean on our friends and family, in person, at least.
National politics, police shootings and civil unrest have been stressful for many. The recent presidential election is also unlike any most of us remember.
But I have a place to live. Every day, I feel grateful for a job that gives me the means to pay my bills. I have a husband who likes me even when I’m irritable. He and I are both healthy and while I have a number of friends who have had COVID-19, I’ve not, thank God, lost any to the virus.
The turkey sandwich I had at Gus’s last weekend? It’s going to be the only turkey of Thanksgiving week, as the holiday is also different this year.
And that’s enough for me. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a few years ago but now, I’m perfectly content.
Is that all there is? Yes. And I’m thankful for it.