There she is, holding a glass of champagne. It’s 1962 in Venice, Italy, and Victorine Reubeuze is wearing one very large, very conspicuous, smile. She’s wearing a dress, too, on what appears to have been a celebratory evening as part of an organized tour. But it’s the smile that sticks with me. Dresses fade out of style, you know. Smiles never do.
Some women worry about their laugh lines. But my grandmother worries when there’s no laughter at all. I think she figured out what’s important long ago, because after 92 years, she just looks happy. I think it’s because she’s laughed so hard, and so much, for so very long. Even more striking is that she’s continued to laugh despite a lifetime of events that would have made others cry.
That’s why I’m writing this. My mother and I just returned from France after an 11-day stay, and we spent five of those days with Grand-mere – talking, telling stories, going through pictures, and playing Scrabble – at her new assisted living facility. This is a big deal for my grandmother, who has always prided herself on her independence. But she decided to move there from her condo last October. Her memory was failing. And she knew it wasn’t going to get any better.
So off my mother and I went to St. Servan, a city outside of St. Malo, in Brittany. And though I’d been there many times before, I was determined to get as much from this visit as possible. That meant a lavalier microphone to catch Grand-mere’s voice and, especially, her laugh. It also meant a video camera for her stories. I tried to gather everything and anything: The hunch of her back, the rings on her fingers, the image of her slowly walking down the hall, even her hands as they sliced a kiwi. Nothing was off limits.
Mostly, though, I was trying to capture her essence. Some people have that more than others, I think. And even at age 92, my grandmother’s still got it. When there’s no joy, she brings it. When there is joy, she enhances it. That’s her. In the coming months, I’m going to do everything in my power to recreate that essence, even if it’s thousands of miles away, here in Evansville.
I know, of course, that the short movie I come up with based on her life can’t completely depict the woman who survived World War II, gave birth to three children, worked job after job after job, got married and then divorced and then married again (this time to a man who made her very happy), and is now, as you read this, probably quietly resting on her chair, at peace and in the midst of a nap.
But at least this video will be something I can conjure up at will. And when my grandmother can’t laugh anymore, when her smile is something we’ll only be able to reference through media, at least I’ll have that. At least we’ll all have that. Because I think laughing 92-year-olds should be celebrated. Laughing is contagious, after all. Maybe happiness is, too.