I am trying to practice the art of gratitude. For obvious reasons, what with Thanksgiving around the corner, and also because I’ve been so devastated by the examples of hate that I keep hearing about from friends and reading about in the news. I am trying to practice gratitude for selfish reasons, to light a candle for myself in a time of darkness.
I am grateful for novels which offer escape but also introspection. I keep coming back to an op-ed I read by the brilliant Ann Patchett in which she asserts, “Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.”
I couldn’t agree with her more and it makes me want to hug an English teacher today, to thank him or her teacher for training young minds to imagine the life of another, or even the other. When a person is capable of doing that, they are less likely to think of other humans as entities that should be registered, spat upon or sneered at; they are more likely to pick up another novel than a can of spray paint.
So I am grateful to English teachers everywhere. And, as a novelist, I am grateful to my readers who constantly amaze me with their examples of empathy. Which brings me to a message I received from a Turkish woman living in New York, which I found so beautiful I feel compelled to share it. It was a response to The Ladies of Managua, but also an incredible story in its own right.
She wrote, “My Grandma was your Bela. I can spend days talking about how amazing she was. I can say that she was the strongest person I knew and also a fragile young girl at heart. I can tell you how it was rumored that she was the first woman in Istanbul who wore navy blue with green (when most women her generation could not move past unoriginal color combos such as black and white) and that she read all seven Harry Potter books—just because she was my best friend and she knew how much I had enjoyed them. But none of that would do her any justice. So I simply say, she was all that and a bag of chips.”
“Grandma fell in love at 15 and never quite got over it. He was an up-and-coming opera singer who came from a ‘very good family,’ as she did. After he graduated high school, he won a scholarship to study in Paris. The night before he left for school, he brought his family to Grandma’s house to ask for her hand in marriage. But apparently, a ‘singer’ could never be good enough for her family, who locked her up and would not let her leave the house for a year. Grandma escaped that night to get word to him, but somehow froze when it came time to stand up to her family for good. The two wrote to each other for years but would never be together again.”
“At the end of 2013, Grandma got sick and I spent 13 days in the hospital with her. At some point, she lost consciousness and started hallucinating and calling out names, and called his more than a few times. A couple days later, she came to—though she was clearly no longer at 100%—and started talking about him, saying, I would like to find him when I get out of the hospital. I googled him and found out that he had passed away only recently, at 97. And that he remained incredibly adorable until his last day. The journalist who wrote his obituary wrote that although he was frail and could no longer walk much, his voice was still as strong as ever and that his neighbors loved hearing him practice. We never told her. She passed away a few days later, at age 95.”
“It breaks my heart every day to know that they could have been together for 80 years had they somehow made it. I have always wanted to write Grandma’s story. But here you are, a stranger who has gotten it so right.”
I wrote the author of this beautiful letter to say that although her grandmother’s romance never got a happy ending, she clearly was blessed with another great love—the deep bond she shared with her granddaughter.
I received this letter months ago but I can’t stop thinking about it. It reminds me that, above all, today, I am grateful for love in all its forms.
Hug those who are close to you—twice if they happen to teach English! Reconnect with those who no longer are but who live in your heart. And when you’re feeling particularly dark, look for new love and understanding, in the pages of a book as well as in the world around you.