My grandma’s cursive is much like her: beautiful, hard to read and resourceful — making a home out of whatever space life, or in this case the medium of paper, provides.
It’s a running joke in my family that most of us wait until we’re alone to try to read her letters, both for the time they take to decode and for the emotional sentiments penned throughout.
So with a brave face this past weekend, I decided to read this year’s Christmas letter in front of my grandma and the other members of my extended family. As expected, the letter brought several pauses and tears as I read it. Unexpectedly though, the letter told the story of my grandma’s gift to me this year: two crystal flower vases.
I adore both flowers and beautiful vases, so this present was already lovely. Upon learning the vases were part of the wedding gifts my grandparents received 58 years prior, this gift became precious.
My grandma, Sylvia Gay Britt, and grandpa, Charles Donnie Britt, were married for 57 years before he died due to congestive heart disease nearly a year ago, on Jan. 10, 2021. This year, the first Christmas without him, we all wondered and worried how the holiday would feel without him with us. I worried especially for my grandma — who has certainly mourned the most among us, yet also aims to tend to the grief each of us carry.
My grandma’s life has not been easy. She has buried two husbands — my grandpa, last year, and her first husband, Aldon Shelton, nearly 60 years ago, after a work accident left her a young and widowed single mother. She has buried a daughter, my aunt Allison Britt, and a beloved granddaughter, Candace Howlin Kay.
She’s faced poverty and known hunger, as one of eight children growing up in the wake of the Great Depression. After marrying my grandpa, who worked over 50 years in the retail industry, she experienced financial stability. They were never rich, but lived comfortably — with my grandma always finding extra ways to save money. In recent years, mounting healthcare bills and debt meant my grandma’s penny-pinching skills were more needed — still, she’d be the first to tell you that she always had enough.
Though my grandma has never had much, she’s always had an eye for curating the beautiful things she does acquire — whether through sales, saving or gifts. This talent is evident in her flower and wreath arrangements, which she used to do professionally at my grandpa’s old Ben Franklin store, and also in the elaborate meal and dessert spreads she’s made nearly single-handedly since I was a young girl. It’s also apparent in her signature pound cake, which originated as a simple and cheaper recipe only requiring four ingredients (butter, flour, sugar and eggs), but in my opinion, holds its own among the most elegant of desserts.
As I reflect on 2021 and resolve for the year ahead, I keep coming back to the beauty and care represented in the two vases gifted to me by my grandma.
“In my generation and generations before me, crystal (genuine crystal) was the most desired wedding gift,” my grandma wrote. “As I have accumulated several pieces, I wanted to give you two flower vases.”
As a disclaimer, my grandma added that the two vases may not actually be genuine crystal — she’s forgotten which pieces of her collection are authentic and which are not over the years — but she proceeded to share some of her favorite memories with the vases, and with flowers generally, in her letter nonetheless.
That’s just like my grandma. Anyone can recognize and covet beauty, but it takes a special and generous person to see value in what the world may or may not deem as technically valuable. And despite the hardships she’s endured throughout her life, my grandma has never stopped acknowledging, creating and making space for beautiful things.
This year, I want to be more like my grandma.
In the wake of another year that felt chronically heavy with the weight of precedented things — heartache, financial woes, death — and unprecedented alike — a pandemic, political mayhem and climate change rearing its head — I want to take the time to appreciate and curate the beauty within and around me.
Some people, including the cynic in me, might look down on my grandma’s positivity. After all she’s gone through, she still believes in the fundamental good of people and that the God of the universe knows, loves and provides for her. She leans on her strong faith for comfort through grief, and will defend her Christian apologetics to anyone.
(“As your future brings marriage and a home, may it be filled with genuine love for the Lord,” she affectionately signed off in my card, “as He is the most ‘real and genuine crystal ever.’”)
Such faith is perhaps easy to criticize, particularly in a time of so much justified pessimism and mistrust. But what do I, and all the other cynics among us, gain for our doubt in the goodness of the world around us? It certainly doesn’t remove the chance of being hurt or sick, or experiencing loss; it often does remove the joy of reveling in often simple, beautiful things.
For 79 years now, my grandma has made much out of little. That’s not an expression of support for the circumstances that created the difficulty my grandma faced, but one of admiration for the tenacity and zeal for life my grandma has fostered despite all the times she was dealt a bad hand.
2021 arguably dealt more bad hands than 2020, despite all the anticipation that it would be a magically better year. But last night, as I found a home for my new-to-me vases, I thought about what it would mean to commit to the hard but important work of looking for and stewarding beauty.
In the face of sickness, loss and disappointment, I am resolving to make much out of little this year.
Not like a person with their head in the sand, but like my grandma: resourcefully, generously and at the calculated risk of looking just a little bit foolish.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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