Learning to Smile

April 6th, 2020 by Diana Coman

In the starkest possible contrast with all the gray, the drab, the brokeness and the neverending grumbles that surrounded my growing up, there always comes to mind as well, balancing it all for a few of the starting years1, the calm but firm efficiency and the warm but knowing smile of my maternal grandmother2.

She seemed to smile at all times indeed and the child that I was then took it all for granted and took it all to mean - with all the naivety and lack of deeper understanding that makes one a child to start with - that she was simply very happy at all times, of course, a sort of happy accident within the unhappy rest. So I considered for a long time that the very image of happiness is indeed a restrained smile like that, slightly turning up the corners of one's mouth, twinkling at best of times in the eyes while drawing at the same time fine and often unexpectedly deep lines through the papery white skin of one's face. It was only years later when I finally realised that some of those lines were there from way before any smile, while some - and I can't even tell exactly which ones - were simply the pain showing through the smile anyway, just like the papery white skin was the unmistakable mark of living with a heart condition.

I knew even at the time that she was ill and that her illness was a heart condition, it was never hidden from me nor a secret thing at all. But knowing it as a fact has nothing to do with understanding it or what it means at all. I had indeed so little understanding of it that I didn't even have many questions to ask about it at all, except that one time when I asked her out of the blue "how it happened" - and she smiled at it even more than usual, choosing to answer simply and kindly my curiosity and my concern rather than my meaningless question for which there was no meaningful answer. She said it could have been perhaps due to a very big explosion that she witnessed as a child. The explosion was real - she had lived through the 2nd World War - and her having the condition even as a child was probably real too though it was never diagnosed that early3.

She was diagnosed when she was about 30 - if being shouted at and being menaced by a doctor who was scared shitless himself counts as being diagnosed - as she nearly died giving birth to my mother. And then she had heart surgery and learnt that even so, she will most likely die sooner rather than later. As I learnt later on, it was in part that knowledge and in part the time spent in hospitals and the experience of all those ill or dieing people that she met there that gave her the never failing smile that I thought sprung instead from pure happiness of the lightest sort. One day, during one of those hospital stays, she had decided to keep smiling through it all and to be happy indeed if she gets to even see first her own child grown up, then her grandchildren.

Whether she was indeed happy or not I don't dare to presume knowing in the slightest, but it was nevertheless her knowing presence and her unfailing smile that served as a safe haven for me and that in turn certainly helped to balance a lot of other things at the time. It was also that hard-won depth of her smile that taught me way more than I realised then, so much more in fact that I kept learning from it even years and years after her death. As I deciphered more of it and as I gained more knowledge and a deeper understanding of what was behind that smile and where it had come from, I found it anchored me safely in the starkest reality at times when there was nothing else to lean on and everything else that seemed solid turned out to be just lies and deception and smoke. And it strikes me that it's perhaps no wonder then, that I could never quite expect happiness to be anything other than living fully in the reality of each day, even if it means quite often that happiness itself will shine over and get shot through with pain at least at times, if not at all times.

Despite all the above knowledge that I've been given, it still took me quite a lot of years to learn to smile, to learn in fact that I could fully smile and that it was the healthier choice to make, rather than listening in the slightest or even paying any attention whatsoever to problems or even to the surrounding frowns and grumbles and tiresome, endless complaints. Here's some illustration of the change too, since the apt old pictures turned out unexpectedly a few days ago anyway:

  1. Only a few, as she died when I was about 10. 

  2. My maternal grandmother lived on the other side of the town, in a little house that was hers much more than can be easily explained through a mere few words - suffice it to say for now perhaps that the house was indeed hers, from its wooden door with a geometric pattern that she had designed, to the curtains and table cloths that she had sewn herself and even more so to the warm, open and wholesome environment that she maintained at all times through her presence and her work alone. And it was indeed hers to the extent that it took only a few short years after her death for that house to not exist anymore, for all the fact that the building itself is still there and still in use even today and yes, for all the fact that I still stay there on occasion when I go back to my hometown. From that oasis of settled life, from that peace and comfort she had made and maintained for herself, she came nevertheles daily, by crowded, cold and smelly bus, at the earliest hours of the morning, to look after us - nominally after me and my brother but she looked really after way more than just the two of us. 

  3. From what I heard later on, she got instead beaten with a wet towel for being "lazy" when she was, most likely, simply ill. 

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One Response to “Learning to Smile”

  1. [...] and seemingly neverending experience. So far I figured out only how to laugh at it (and that took a lot of years to learn anyway) - but I do start getting ideas as to what a solution to this might look like, indeed. [...]

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