Thursday, 1 September 2011

Lessons from Aunt Grace

The day we moved away I hit bottom. Saying good-bye to my friends and to the house I had loved made me feel as though my moorings had been ripped loose. Now, in what my husband kept calling "our new home" (it wasn't new, and it wasn't home), I was so awash in self-pity that I almost ignored the white leather book I found while unpacking an old trunk. But something prompted me to examine it.

The gold Victorian script on the cover spelled My Diary. Opening the book, I recognized the spidery handwriting of my great-aunt Grace, who had lived with us when I was a little girl. Aunt Grace belonged to a species now extinct - the unmarried, unemployed gentlewoman forced to live with relatives. All the cards had seemed to be stacked against her. She was plain-looking; she was poor; she was frail.

Yet the thing that I remember about her was her unfailing cheerfulness. Not only did she never complain, but she never seemed to lose her gentle smile. "Grace always looks on the bright side," people said.

I sank down on the rolled carpet to read her diary. The first entry was dated 1901; the last was the year of her death, 1930. I read casually at first, and then with riveted attention.

Three years have passed since my dear Ted was killed at San Juan Hill and yet every day is still filled with pain. Will I ever be happy again?

Ted? I thought of Aunt Grace as the complete old maid. She once had a sweetheart! I read on:

My unhappiness is a bottomless cup. I know I must be cheerful, living in this large family upon whom I am dependent, yet gloom haunts me...Something has to change or I shall be sick. Clearly my situation is not going to change, therefore, I shall have to change. But how?

I have given much thought to my predicament and I have devised a simple set of rules by which I plan to live. I intend this to be a daily exercise. I pray that the plan will somehow deliver me from my dismal swamp of despair. It has to.

The simplicity of Aunt Grace's rules-to-live-by took my breath away. She resolved every day to:

1. Do something for someone else.
2. Do something for myself.
3. Do something I don't want to do that needs doing.
4. Do a physical exercise.
5. Do a mental exercise.
6. Do an original prayer that always includes counting my blessings.

Aunt Grace wrote that she limited herself to six rules because she felt that number to be "manageable." Here are some of the things she did and recorded in her diary:

Something for someone else. She bought three calves' feet, simmered them for four hours in water, with spices, to make calf's-foot jelly for a sick friend.

Something for myself. She trimmed an old blue hat with artificial flowers and a veil, receiving so many compliments that she thought the thirty-five cents well spent.

Something I don't want to do. She "turned out" the linen closet - washed three dozen sheets by hand, sun-bleached them, and folded them away with lavender sachet.

Physical exercise. She played croquet and walked to the village instead of going by horse and buggy.

Mental exercise. She read a chapter a day of Dickens's Bleak House, "which everyone is talking about."

To my surprise, Aunt Grace had trouble with number six. Prayer did not come easily. "I can't concentrate in church," she wrote. "I find myself appraising the hats." Eventually she discovered a solution: "When I sit in solitude on the rock overlooking our pasture brook, I can pray. I ask the Lord to help me bloom where I am planted, and then I count my blessings, always beginning with my family, without whom I would be alone and lost."

When I put down Aunt Grace's diary - aware now that we all fight - tears filled my eyes. But at first I ignored her message. I was a modern woman who needed no self-help crutches from a bygone era.

Yet settling into our new life proved increasingly difficult. One day, feeling totally depressed, I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. Should I try Aunt Grace's formula? Could those six points help me now?

I decided I could continue to be a lump of misery, or I could test Aunt Grace's recipe by doing something for someone else. I could, for instance, phone my eighty-five-year-old neighbour who was ill and lived by herself. One of Aunt Grace's sentences echoed in my head: "I alone can take the initiative to escape from 'the sarcophagus of self.'"

The sarcophagus of self. That did it. I would not be buried by my own ego. I got up and dialed Miss Phillips. She invited me for tea.

It was a start. Miss Phillips was delighted to have someone to talk with - and in her musty parlour I listened to details of her illness. Then I heard her say something that snapped me to attention.

"Sometimes," said Miss Phillips, "the thing you dread doing is the very thing you should do, just so you can stop thinking about it."

I walked home, turning over that insight in my mind. Miss Phillips had cast a new light on Aunt Grace's third rule. Do something I don't want to do that needs doing.

Ever since we moved, I had avoided organizing my desk. Now I made up my mind to get the blasted pile of paper in order. I found a file and folders, and every paper on my desk went into one of them or into the trash.

Two hours later I put down a new green blotter and a small philodendron plant. I beamed. I had done something I did not want to do, and it made me feel good.

At first, "doing a physical exercise" wasn't quite so successful. I signed up for a jazz-exercise class and hated it. I tried jogging, until it dawned on me that I hated it, too.

"What's wrong with walking?" my husband asked. He offered to join me each morning before breakfast. We found walking to be wonderfully conducive to communication. We enjoyed it so much that evening walks eventually replaced our evening cocktail. We felt healthier than we had in years.

At "doing something for yourself" I excelled. I began with Aunt Grace's idea of bath therapy. "A bath should be the ultimate place of relaxation," she wrote. "Gather fresh lemon balm, sweet marjoram, mint, lemon verbena, lavender and rose geranium. Steep the dried leaves in boiling water for fifteen minutes and strain into the tub. Lie in the bath with your eyes closed, and do not think while soaking."

Miss Phillips happily supplied me with herbs from her garden. I put the herbal mix in the tub, turned on the water and stretched out to let the tensions of the day melt away. It was sensational.

Soon I started an herb garden of my own and made herbal sachets for Christmas gifts. Doing, something for myself had turned into doing something for someone else.

The "Mental exercise" was more of a challenge. I couldn't decide what to do until I read about a poetry course at the local community college. The teacher was a retired college professor who made poetry come alive. When we reached Emily Dickinson, I went into orbit. I read all 1,775 of her poems and was enthralled. "I dwell in Possibility," wrote Emily. Marvellous.

Our professor was big on memorizing, which turned out to be the best mental exercise of all. I began with "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" and progressed to more difficult poems like "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." How I've enjoyed recalling these poems while waiting in supermarket lines or at doctors' offices!

Aunt Grace's prayer assignment was the most helpful of all. I try now to make up a short prayer every day, and I always include some thanksgiving in it. Writing a prayer isn't easy, but it's a valuable spiritual discipline. I don't have Aunt Grace's meditation rock, but I do have a peaceful village church where I can attend to that inner voice.

I don't worry how well I fulfil Aunt Grace's six rules, so long as I do them daily. I will give myself credit for just one letter written, or one drawer cleaned out, and it's surprising how good feelings about a small accomplishment often enable me to go on and do more.

Can life be lived by a formula? All I know is that since I started to live by those six precepts, I've become more involved with others and hence, less "buried" in myself. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, I have adopted Aunt Grace's motto: "Bloom where you are planted."

-Nardi Reeder Campion-


  1. I really enjoyed this entry! I think I may print out the six rules and tape them to the front of my fridge (lol--next to the recipe for lawyer meat and vegetable casserole). Just finished the move today, btw. So hopefully I can be a more attentive reader in between endless sessions of unpacking. Having a lovely glass of coffee liqueur and cream over crushed ice tonight, mmm...

    Toodles! =)

  2. OK when you say lawyer meat and vegetable casserole, do you mean it's made with the meat of lawyers (which would make you a vegetarian) or that lawyers eat it (which would make you not)?

  3. Haha--it's allegedly made with a combination of German sausage and the meat of no fewer than (8) lawyers! But other than that, it follows your basic squash casserole recipe. :-)

    Funny you should ask. I tend to eat vegetarian most of the time (it's quite easy these days, what with all the textured soy options) but... I do profoundly enjoy a big, bloody piece of meat on occasion, seasoned with only salt and pepper and grilled over a hardwood fire to a tender, juicy medium-rare. I've definitely learned to thoroughly embrace my thin, red line.

    Lol, speaking of which, a line from a poem by Robinson Jeffers just popped into my head:
    "The man-brained, man-handed ground ape... physically the most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals..."

  4. O for a beaker full of the warm South!
    Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene...

    (it goes well with bloody meat too)