My grandmother's philosophy of life was this: whatever happens happens for a reason.
She herself would have been hard pressed to call this a "philosophy." She didn't throw around too many four-syllable words in English, what with those nine children and the various complexities of tenement life during the Depression. But maybe she thought about things while she did "piece-work" at night, sewing the edges around button-holes.
One of the ways she looked at life was to believe that--even if you could not understand it, even if it seemed like a tragedy or actually WAS a tragedy--things happen for a reason. You might not understand the reason or accept it even if you understood it, but that was simply because your perspective was limited.
One of my early encounters with grandma's philosophy came when I was about eight years old. I'd saved up money from birthdays and holiday, guarding dimes from cards sent by relatives who put coins in individual slots, making the currency seem miraculously multiplied. Through careful financial planning, I had about five or six dollars. It was enough money to go to the stores on the Avenue.
I wanted to own The Barbie Game by Mattel. The goal of this popular game was to get a dress, a part-time job, and a boyfriend (n.b.: maybe there was also the hint that you should do well at school--I don't remember whether I'm inventing that part or not). The winner, once these prizes were accumulated, was the first to go to the prom. This was the the object of my desire and I looked forward to the possession of this toy the way a cat looks at a ball of wool: I could hardly wait to get my hands on it.
I would be kind enough to share my treasures with a select crowd. Two of my friends accompanied me to the toy store; I was as smug as if they constituted a royal entourage. The dusty, cluttered shelves of the small, old store contained all of life's riches. The Barbie Game was there in all it's glory, and I held it reverentially, almost tenderly, as I approached the cash register.
Which is when I discovered that, in the couple of blocks between my house and the store, I had lost all my money. In tears and in a state of panic, I asked the nice man at the counter to hold the game for me, lest it be purchased by a more economically secure little girl, and my friends and I started searching the sidewalks for my lost fortune.
It was a busy Saturday. Streets were filled with people. One of those people had been lucky enough to look down and see a couple of bucks in the gutter and, naturally enough, picked it up. The money was gone.
Of course the money was gone.
I was inconsolable. My friends were disappointed but couldn't share my knife-edged sense of devastation.
I had not only forfeited the cash and lost the chance to own The Barbie Game, but--insult to injury-- I had wasted all the time and effort that went into saving up the money itself. My friends shuffled their feet, looked sad, and said good-bye on the corner.
My grandmother was alone in the house when I returned. I was sobbing, gritty and disheveled from scouring the city streets. She wiped my face with a damp dishtowel in that rough way that grown-ups wipe the faces of little kids, attempting unsuccessfully to wipe away my despair along with the dirt, to remove the grief along with the grime.She sat me down at the big table and gave me a pignoli cookie and a glass of milk. Then she asked for an explanation.
Outraged and incredulous at the unfairness of it all, I explained what happened. I expected one of her enormous and enveloping hugs. I expected sympathy and consolation. I expected more cookie by way of reparations for the general injustice of the universe.
Instead of providing what I expected, however, Grandma shrugged and said "Too bad you lost the money. But there must be a reason."She patted me on the head--no hug, no more cookies--and went back to doing the dishes.
This I could not accept; her response aroused in me a sense of indignity. I protested and she answered, calmly, as if explaining a fact which was embarrassingly self-evident, "Something bad would have happened if you'd got what you wanted. Be glad you didn't."
When I asked how The Barbie Game could have damaged me, she said "Look, let's say you got the toy and you were so excited to show it to your little friends that you ran across the street without looking and you got hit by a car." "Grandma," I said, somewhere between a sigh and a shout, "That wouldn't have happened!" "How do you know, miss smarty-pants? Things happen. Bad things, sometimes. Maybe somebody" she looked heavenward and I knew she wasn't talking about the people on the second floor, "is looking out for you. You can't change it anyway. It is for the best."
I don't remember what I did for the rest of the afternoon, once that brief conversation was finished. I wish I could say it provoked a sudden change of heart. It did not. But now, almost forty years later, I reflect on my grandmother's words and I am astonished by her life: here was a girl who left Palermo when she was sixteen, sailed in the bottom of the boat (in steerage where she was scared and sick and miserable) and moved to a new country, settled in a huge city she knew nothing about, not even how to speak its language.
Yet she rolled-up her sleeves and made life for herself and her family.
The one thing about which she was certain was that there was--that there HAD to be-- a reason for this turmoil. There had to be a reason for the sense of loss she felt on those nights when she missed the old country, on afternoons when she longed to pick the figs right off the tree as she did in Sicily, or on cold days when she might have been tempted to barter her soul for sun and familiar voices.
I think The Barbie Game showed up for my birthday or Christmas and no doubt I was grateful. Somehow I doubt that my paternal grandmother had time to pick up a copy CANDIDE and be tickled by the inevitable comparison to the comic character of Pangloss, a figure who insists that "this is the best of all possible worlds."