When I was a girl, I often got hand-me-downs from a much older and thinner cousin, which gave me a bad body image way too young and many years before it became a “thing.” My books, most of which had been published in the early part of the twentieth century, were also hand-me-downs from her. Looking back, some of the books themselves seemed old even then, so they might have been handed down to her first — odd to think I never thought to ask where the books originated.
I read as much then as I do now, so whenever I got sick and had finished reading all my library books as well as those of my siblings, I’d reread these novels. I had a few Nancy Drew, a lot of Judy Bolton, some miscellaneous stories, and a boxed set of five Pollyanna books that chronicled her life way past childhood. One year I was absent from school so often that I must have read these books three or four times. (I remember thinking I was pretending to be sick so I didn’t have to go to school, but once when I told my mother this, she said, “You really were sick.” But silly me, I never asked what my illness was.)
Way into my late teens, whenever I wasn’t feeling well, I’d reread these books. I don’t know what happened to the mysteries, but a friend wanted the Pollyanna books, and so I gave them to her. (She doesn’t remember this, but it was a long time ago, and I’m sure her receiving the books wasn’t as emotionally charged as my giving them.)
I was particularly enthralled with Pollyanna and her glad game, and I even tried playing it myself, but being the pragmatist and realist that I am, I couldn’t always see “gladness” even in the things she found to be glad about. The game began when her missionary parents received a “missionary barrel” of donated items, and the only thing for a little girl was a pair of crutches. Her father told her, and she believed, that she could be glad she didn’t need them.
To my way of thinking, she could have been just as glad not to need them if she had also received the doll she wanted, and the doll would have lasted a lot longer than the gladness for not needing the crutches. But then, of course, if it had worked out my way, there wouldn’t have been a story.
What made me think of all this is that my co-worker is a real-life Pollyanna, though her key words are not gladness but “this is a good thing because. . .” I’d seen her in action before, trying to keep our charge from descending into a funk, but her skill really struck home yesterday.
The client (for lack of a better word) and I had spent our time together grumping about the things going on in the world today. Being a grump has its place, I think. Facing the reality of widowhood and age certainly has its place. Mostly we just acknowledged the various situations we talked about, and then went on to something else without dwelling on the issues.
When our friend and coworker came home with her gladness, it struck me how very different two valid points of view can be. I’m ashamed to admit that I burst out with, “You’re a real Pollyanna!” Not only is it rude to make personal remarks like that, but the word “Pollyanna” is also sort of trite and meaningless nowadays, devoid of any literary context, especially since others have used the word to describe her. I tend to think it’s different for me, steeped as I have been in the whole Pollyanna literary mystique for so much of my life, not an offhand comment so much as a reflection of the hundreds of times I’d read the Pollyanna books. I could actually see my co-worker in that dauntless girl, changing the world around her with her attitude.
For a few minutes, I considered emulating her, but then I remembered my previously failed Pollyanna-isn-ness. And I remembered how much good I’ve done by dealing with certain realities — such as grief — in all their stark horror, bleakness, and pain by saying, “yes, this is hard, and it will always be hard.”
One thing that I can be glad about — because of this episode, I downloaded the first two Pollyanna books (the two written by the original author) as well as a couple of others she’d written with that same “life is beautiful” attitude.
And the author is right — life is beautiful.
Even when it’s not.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator
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