In the small town in New Hampshire where my family once lived, our house was built above a steep ravine. At the bottom of the ravine was a lovely brook that wound through a forest of birch and pine. An elderly woman named Mrs. Frye had a house by the brook, and on the rocky shore she kept a rowboat with its oars. Beside the boat, she had nailed a hand-lettered sign to a tree. The sign said, “This rowboat is for all to enjoy. Please take good care of it, and return it to this spot.”
Whenever I saw that sign, it made me smile. With its open invitation and its worn and slightly wobbly letters, it looked like something that a Mrs. Badger or a Mr. Mole would have left beside a boat in The Wind in the Willows. My friends and family and I often accepted the invitation, and we had many happy moments paddling around the brook. But, alas, as the years went by, the sign was not respected. From somewhere marauders came, vandals for whom the boat seemed an irresistible target. They spray-painted it with obscene words, dumped ashes in it, broke its oars. They were stealthy, and though they came back again and again, they were never caught or even glimpsed.
“What kind of world are we living in?” Mrs. Frye would ask. “Where is the trust?” After each attack, she would have the boat repaired again, and then leave it back in its spot beside the little sign. With each episode she grew visibly sadder, and she never seemed to get over her shock that people could act in such a wanton, destructive way. But she never withdrew her boat. Over time, her behavior became more and more perplexing to her neighbors. Why persist in a generous gesture that reaped such dire results? Some saw it as a neurotic form of self-sabotage. Others saw it as bad faith to expose oneself to disappointment and then lament the disappointment, again and again. Still others thought it might actually be a form of entrapment to leave temptation in the face of such obviously irresponsible people. In my own family, we were less critical, but our admiration for her generosity took on an ironic edge. Gradually, the phrase “Mrs. Frye’s rowboat” took on slightly comic overtones for us and came to stand for any project that was launched with naively high hopes and thus doomed to failure.
I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Frye in many years until a recent news-item brought her to mind. An updated list of the “ten happiest countries” in the world had just been released: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland…. As I read about these lucky countries, I learned that there is a strong correlation between happiness and trust. In those countries where people rated themselves as experiencing the highest degree of personal happiness, they also expressed a high level of trust in their fellow citizens.
Reflecting later, I was struck by the implied link between happiness and responsibility. Trust has a strong link to responsibility: we can’t trust people whom we believe to be irresponsible, people who act without concern for the needs and desires of others. Perhaps this is obvious to some, but for me it was a revelation. I’d grown up thinking of responsibility as a necessary social virtue, a quality essential to order in the public sphere – but I’d never really grasped its connection to personal happiness.
When I was a child, my model for a trustworthy nation of responsible citizens came not from Norway, Sweden or Denmark, but from England. “In England,” my grandmother used to tell me, “if you throw a stamped, addressed letter out the window, a passerby will mail it for you!” The statement seems even more remarkable to me now than it did at the time. In the small northern California town where I have lived for the past twenty years, mailbox vandalism has become a favorite sport. Almost every day when I take my afternoon walk up a high hill, I see bashed mailboxes and slashed-open envelopes lying in ditches and stuffed into hedges.
When I was 10 years old, I had an opportunity to test my grandmother’s theory. It was 1962, and my family had traveled to London. Having written a letter to my best friend who lived in California, I addressed it and put a stamp on it – a purple stamp, with Queen Elizabeth’s profile. From the third floor of our hotel room, I dropped the letter to the pavement below. I watched it flutter all the way down, and then, veiling myself in the curtains, I stood and watched. Though the street was crowded, no one seemed to notice. But then – after 10 minutes or so – I saw a man in a dark suit pass by the letter, stop, then walk back to retrieve it. Giving it a quick glance, he stuffed it in his pocket and went on.
Some two weeks later, my friend in California went to her mailbox and found my letter. When I got the news, I was thrilled: it felt as if I’d pulled off some marvelous, innocent, slightly magical prank. All these years later, however, it dawns on me that the incident carries far greater resonance. The man who bent to pick up a stranger’s letter belongs to the same world as Mrs. Frye’s communal rowboat. And alas – apart from those countries at the top of the happy list – it is not the world most of us seem to inhabit.
“What kind of word are we living in?” Mrs. Frye would ask, shaking her head and dragging her little battered boat back out to the shore. Though it was clearly no longer the sort of world in which one could leave a rowboat out and trust that it would be returned intact, she refused to give up. What strikes me now is that in her own way – in what looked very much like foolish persistence – she was maintaining a place for that world, a world in which happiness flourishes. To maintain that place within herself, and to share her belief in it with others, meant more to her than the pain of disappointment or the physical condition of her boat.
Though Mrs. Frye has been dead for many years, last week I decided to conduct a small experiment in her honor. I wrote five very brief letters, addressed them, stamped them, and – first looking to see if anyone was watching – I left them lying in various spots around town: on the sidewalk outside the bank, the grocery store, the Jack London Saloon. I felt slightly criminal yet also vulnerable, as if I’d left a little piece of myself for some wanton person to rip open and throw in the trash. But just two days later, I received a phone call from Houston, Texas. It was my childhood best friend calling, the same friend who’d been the recipient of my long-ago experiment from London. She was calling to thank me for the letter she’d just found in her mailbox. She called the next day to thank me for a second letter. By the end of the week, it seemed clear that the odds were favoring happiness, with four of five envelopes having safely arrived. On the eighth day, the fifth and final letter arrived. On the back, in a scrawl of black ink, were these words:
“I found this letter on the ground outside the Jack London Saloon. Thought I’d post it for you – Tom.”
Noelle Oxenhandler’s essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Tricycle and elsewhere. Her most recent book is a memoir, The Wishing Year.