My grandmother turned 95 last month.
I cannot imagine having lived nearly a century.
The changes she has witnessed in culture, the roller coaster of joys and aches, the countless births and deaths, the cycle of seasons experienced nearly 100 times. Already, having lived through 38 winters, I feel a little weary of them. And of disappointments, heartache, illness – all the negative aspects of life. And I haven’t survived the Depression, the Spanish Flu, two world wars or the death of a child before myself. How does one make it to old age with any amount of energy or uplifted spirit? It seems as though life beats you down over time, wears you out, spoils the innocence you enjoyed when you were young and unaware. But it must be a choice. It must take some effort and will to end things well.
On my drive to Nebraska to celebrate Grandma’s birthday, as the kids listened to the Sophia the First cd on headphones in the back, I listened to the cd version of the book This I Believe, the compilation of essays written by average and famous Americans about the values that direct their lives. I’ve heard many of these essays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NPR, but I’d never experienced them in bulk. In the very introduction I heard this quote, which confirmed the above sentences I’d typed myself just the day before:
“Beliefs are choices. No one has authority over your personal beliefs. Your beliefs are in jeopardy only when you don’t know what they are.”
Each essay included in the book is really a proclamation of choice – about the principles on which each author has decided to base his or her life. Influenced by circumstances, driven by various forces, every single one has asked the big questions, spent time contemplating, and come to a particular conclusion. It doesn’t mean the ideas can’t shift and change at all over time, but it does mean he or she has done the work of questioning, of grappling, of exercising the heart and mind enough to discover what jives with the soul.
My grandmother has clearly made a choice. She is sweet and kind, happy with the simplest pleasures, mostly that of being with her family. She giggles.
She’s 95 and she giggles.
She has had four children, lost her husband and a child, been moved out of her house and into a nursing home and she still smiles to anyone she encounters. She has lost much of her memory – she neither recognized me the first or second time we “met” at her party – but she has retained her calm, friendly spirit. Though it’s hard to say whether she knew it was her great-granddaughter speaking, she got a kick out of Mae saying her name, she told Luke when introduced to him “That’s a good name for a boy,” and she happily watched the merriment around her even though she didn’t touch her cake.
One might think that in her dementia she is simply blissfully ignorant of the trials she’s survived in life and therefore happy. But she has always been this way. She’s never been an exuberant woman – not openly passionate or gregarious. But she has always been kind, steadfast, quietly strong and patient. And she has always giggled. She made a choice a long time ago to live this way. Decided what she believed, which values would direct her steps – those cliche but universally-relevant questions everyone asks at some point. She answered them for herself and her choices have guided the rest of her days.
Listening to all the essays on This I Believe gave me a peek into many different ways of looking at the world, made me begin to form a mental essay on the subject myself, and, as the editors of the book point out is a common result, reaffirmed what I do believe. I hope that if I live to be nearly a century old, despite all that life with throw at me, I’ll be able to smile and giggle, too (though for me a toothy guffaw may be more in character). I hope I can end my days with the same uplifted heart my grandma possesses.
My favorite essays from This I Believe (in the order they appear in the book):
Be Cool to the Pizza Dude (Sarah Adams)
In Giving I Connect With Others (Isabel Allende)
How is It Possible to Believe in God? (William F. Buckley Jr)
The Power and Mystery of Naming Things (Eve Ensler)
The God Who Embraced Me (John W. Fountain)
The Power of Love to Transform and Heal (Jackie Lantry)
The Artistry in Hidden Talents (Mel Rusnov)
Jazz Is the Sound of God Laughing (Colleen Shaddox)
There Is No Such Thing as Too Much Barbecue (Jason Sheehan)
Always Go to the Funeral (Deirdre Sullivan)
How Do You Believe in a Mystery? (Loudon Wainwright III)