What’s Your Story?

My grandmother on her 105th birthday -- she never forgot whose life she was living.
My grandmother on her 105th birthday — she never forgot whose life she was living.

My grandmother died this week at the ripe old age of 105. Up until the very end, she remained vivacious and ever present. As is the case with anyone who has lived through so many years, there are many things people could probably say about her. But I don’t think anyone would argue with this: my grandmother was always right there, at every event, no matter how big or small, savoring every moment and making the most of her presence. Every day was a party, and if you were there with her then, by god, you better be paying attention. Perhaps it was a reaction to a solitary childhood lived at the base of a remote lighthouse on Lake Superior. Maybe it was just the way she was built. But whatever the cause, few people could get as much out of life as my grandmother.

My sister Bridget began her obituary perfectly, when she wrote this a few days ago:

E. Marie Bernard of Oldsmar, FL, died peacefully in her sleep on May 19, 2014, at age 105.

Marie was born at the lighthouse on Round Island, MI, where her father was a keeper of the light. Her childhood was spent living on the Great Lakes near the Canadian border as her father’s duty stations changed over time. Marie had a lifelong love of the lakes and her lighthouse heritage.

When reading these words, I was struck by a series of thoughts. First, that they read like the beginning of a book. They made me wonder, “Where is this story going?  How will it end?” Secondly, they made me realize how very much my grandmother had starred in the tale that was her life. And, finally, a thought hit me that was a long damn time in coming, considering that I am a writer — an obituary sounds like a synopsis of a book because a life is exactly like a book, one that we write as we go along. One that we add to every day. And whether it is predictable or exciting or sad or romantic, is very much up to us what kind of book we write.  We can choose to be the hero — or villain — of our book, or we can stand on the sidelines and let other people write our plots for us.

I think you know what side I’m on. I have been accused of many things in my life. Exaggerating or being dramatic are certainly two of the charges most frequently leveled against me. But I come by it honestly. Not just because of my grandmother but also, of course, because of my mother… and what can I say about my mother? First, that she was an actress, both literally and figuratively. Secondly, that however she may have lived her life, how messy it may have become at times, she was not just the hero of her own book, early on in her life she had adapted it for the stage. In other words, she was always the star of her story, standing right there in center stage, and woe be unto anyone who dared step on one of her lines.

We should all be like that. We should all be like my grandmother and mother. We should all get up every day and look at that day as the chance to write a new page in the book of our life. If we have a bad day, we should all just turn the page and view the next one as a fresh start. We should recognize and celebrate our heroes when they come along. We should keep a watchful eye out for our villains. We should seize every opportunity to surprise ourselves, yet never let go of the themes that comfort us and give our lives a deeper meaning. We should be careful not to overlook the minor characters who form the backdrop for our lives, and we should treasure the main characters who have thrown their lot in with ours and allowed their own stories to be intertwined with others. And, hell, we should all exaggerate and be dramatic at every possible turn. Because, remember — it’s all in the storytelling.

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