My grandmother was very much a “glass-half-full” woman—an optimist even though she would never have used such a fancy word like optimist to describe herself. She always tried to look at the bright side of things no matter how dire or depressing they seemed to be at the moment.
Growing up, I didn’t appreciate this nearly as much as I do now. And if some good fortune came her way, she was always more appreciative than most people since the mere fact that she had food, shelter, and clothing was enough of a reason to be happy in her mind. Suffering through The Depression made her grateful for every little thing she had. I remember when one of her hybridized irises won first place at the flower show. She received a check for $100, which was a lot of money to her. She loved experimenting with her flowers so she said winning the money was just “icing on the cake.”
Every week, usually on Sunday, she would call us collect and ask for herself. This was our cue to call her back so that we paid for the call instead of her. She and my grandfather lived on income from his work at the granite quarry and what she pulled in with her small, but steady job as a wedding caterer. It wasn’t much, so my Mom was happy to foot the long distance bills. She and I would usually chat about what I had done at school or something related to one of my extra-curricular activities. Occasionally, I would have some bad news to report and she would always try to help me see the bright side of whatever perceived tragedy I had just endured. “But Jenny didn’t invite me to her party that she’s having on Saturday. She invited everyone but me,” I wailed.
“Well, it’s a good thing you found out now that she’s not your friend. This way you don’t waste any more time on her and you don’t have to buy her a birthday gift. Go pick out something for yourself instead.”
I felt instantly better. Then she added, “I’ll send you a little money.” She was always sending “a little money”—literally. Five dollars in a birthday card. A two-dollar bill tucked inside a note. I loved getting mail from her anyway, so the money inside was just a bonus.
Despite suffering from scleroderma for most of her adult life, my grandmother soldiered on making the most beautiful wedding cakes I had ever seen. To look at her hands, which were tightened and gnarled by the disease, you would never imagine that she could do much with them let alone turn out such amazingly beautiful handmade flowers. I would often sit with her while she rolled out the gum paste dough, cut the petal shapes, molded them, and then strategically placed them on the “bud” using just a dab of egg white. Doing this over and over yielded the most beautiful roses that were then placed on the elaborately frosted cakes she made for each wedding. Try as I might, I could never recreate one of her flowers even though she sat there patiently many times trying to teach me. She would always applaud my efforts, despite the fact that my “flowers” looked like a wadded mass of Play-Doh on a toothpick.
Later in life when she had sort of retired from catering because of the physical demands of the job, she took up china painting. Her sclerotic hands then more disfigured than ever, it was inspiring to see the level of detail in her paintings knowing that her ability to hold a paintbrush was so compromised. Looking closely at the brush strokes, you can almost feel how carefully the paint must have been applied. It’s hard to find even the tiniest mistake. She painted a lot of figurines, plates, tiles, little boxes, and candy dishes and gave them away as gifts. Luckily she also kept some of the pieces she created so after she passed away, we collected all of her work and between my mom and I, have it prominently displayed in our homes. Many of the pieces are paintings of the flowers—mostly irises—that she had lovingly coaxed into new, more beautiful versions through her patient and careful gardening techniques. Those pieces are reminders of how she was able to combine two things she loved into one creative outlet.
It’s been almost four years now. I miss her a lot. But I am still able to channel her positive attitude whenever I start to feel like something bad has happened. Many of my perceived tragedies today are simply that—perceived. When you really step back and look at a bad situation, you can almost always figure out how it might generate a positive side effect or outcome. It just takes a little extra effort to adjust your life lens.
Turning forty last month was another one of my “tragedies.” I felt like I had reached this milestone in my life and yet I hadn’t accomplished much or really found my identity as a person beyond being a wife and mother. I didn’t want to celebrate and spent much of the day feeling sorry for myself.
What I began to realize is that I have been presented with a unique opportunity to reinvent myself. For instance, I’ve started writing, which is something I had planned to do as a career when I declared English as my major sophomore year. I had my life all mapped out and was going to be a college professor like my father taking summers off to work on my Great American Novel. Obviously, that plan didn’t unfurl as expected.
Writing is something I love doing and it helps to put things into perspective: life’s pitfalls don’t look so bad when squeezed into a couple of paragraphs. And if I ever get a check for some of the words I’ve put onto a piece of paper, well, that will just be icing on the cake.