“Unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes.” (Isaiah 61:3)
Somewhere in the distance run of third term, a student or two will always comment on the depressing nature of the literature we read in my English class. They ask things like, “Are you trying to depress us? Why do we have to read books that have such sad endings?” Initially, their questions caught me off guard. Why do so many enduring works of literature end tragically? My answer has come to be: because we learn from tragedy. If John Proctor chose to confess and lie and live, would the Crucible’s message have as much of an impact? Would we have cause to reflect on our own society? If Jay Gatsby waltzed off into the sunset with Daisy, The Great Gatsby could molder on the shelf with any romance novel of the time. Gatsby had to fail in order for us to consider what the American Dream is and if it truly is attainable for any of us.
Great literature echoes real life. When we face tragedy or challenges, those are the defining moments in our lives, the crossroads where we choose to become something better or succumb to the tragedy.
My grandmother had a life filled with challenge. She lost her mother when she was two years old and grew up during the Great Depression. She married and had six children while moving every two years because her husband was in the military. She and her family lived for several years in Fairbanks, Alaska where they went without seeing the sun six months of the year, and for the other six, they could never get a break from it. Her husband cheated on her. She suffered a mental breakdown, spent time in an institution and underwent electric shock therapy. She returned to her family to continue raising her children. Eventually her husband left her for another woman. The children were raised and gone, but my grandmother had been a housewife all of her life and didn’t have any education or skills to start a career. She lived in a small apartment, teetering on the edge of poverty until her death from cancer when she was seventy.
When I came to know my grandmother, she was a happy, joyous woman who liked to sing to big band music and watch old Jane Russel and Doris Day movies. She made huge Christmas and Thanksgiving meals for her family and told me stories of the games she played as a child and the boys she dated as a teenager. I spent a great deal of time with her growing up and knew her better than any of my other grandparents. She only showed me her happiness and love despite the long thorny path her life took. At any point during her difficult life she could have given up and walked away from her family or become bitter and angry. She did just the opposite.
It was a matter of days from her cancer diagnosis to her death, but each of her children and many grandchildren rushed from where ever they lived to see her one last time and to say goodbye.
Many might look at my grandmother’s life, see her poverty and lack of material goods or a successful career and view her life as a failure. In fact, it was just the opposite. Her struggles made her who she was. She wouldn’t have been the woman I knew without them. With my grandmother and her life, I saw beauty for ashes.