As I turned to say good-bye, the words came, taking me by surprise : She is “une grande dame.” I hadn’t thought of that phrase since high school French (a class I barely passed), but I fuzzily recalled it meant “a great lady.” When I was young, I had an image of a “grande dame” as an operatic-like, larger-than-life woman in an elegant full-length gown and a huge feathered hat…a figure completely foreign to me.
But Joan could be easily dismissed in a crowd: slender, plainly dressed, short white hair. Although not visible inside the coffeehouse, the light outdoors showed a fine network of delicate wrinkles journeying around her eyes. They made me think of a network of tree roots, the outer manifestations of many decades of inner challenges and joys. As Eleanor Roosevelt, the “grande dame” of American First Ladies, once said: “Beautiful young people are an accident of nature. Beautiful old people are a work of art.”
Joan has been widowed for two years. She grieved deeply for her lovable husband, a man whom everybody wanted to claim as a father or substitute-father. But she had just come back from a month-long trip to Israel, where her goal was to just see for herself what life was like there. She was visited for a week by her daughter and son-in-law and relished their time together, but was also very content on her own, talking to strangers on park benches, marketing daily for her simple meals, walking for miles along the ocean, and warmed by the many invitations she took advantage of from friends and friends of friends. She smilingly confided that she had brought her husband’s spirit along with her.
Joan is the matriarch of a large family of delightful daughters, son-in-laws, and grandchildren. She is always hospitable (whether she ever met you before or not), makes twice as much as you could possibly eat when you come to dinner, and if you are lucky, you will feast on her lighter-than-air rugelach.
But she does not live only through her family and her role as a homemaker. For as long as I have known her, she has been an independent, accomplished, respected executive. After she retired from a prestigious position, both she and her husband volunteered for the Peace Corps. They loved learning about different cultures. When Joan and her husband talked about the various people they met, Joan and he seemed to be inhaling so deeply of life, in all its variations of wealth and poverty, in all its variations of obstacles and creative ways to surmount obstacles. They were as comfortable with the head of a country as with the most humble and as-yet uneducated peasant…This seems to me to be one of the greatest of human qualities. And I have never heard her speak ill of anybody, another quality I aspire to (but have not yet quite achieved.)
I don’t know about the intricacies of her family relationships, but she seems to be fiercely proud of all her children and grandchildren without being intrusive or overly worried. I don’t even know if she believes in God, but I know she acts like she is grateful for unknown blessings already on their way.
Joan serves on nine different community boards. Perhaps she got the idea of a “mission statement” from her work with them or from a different source, but she told me over coffee that she had recently written her own mission statement. And it consisted of two things: to be of service and to be happy. What greater goals could a person aspire to? As the beloved rabbi Reb Nachman used to say, God wants us to be happy, even with all the unknowns and pain in the world, for to be happy is to fully embrace gratitude and to truly trust. No wonder so many Buddha statues have slightly upturned smiles playing upon their faces.
So, as we were saying goodbye after coffee, I got to tell Joan that, for me, she is a “grande dame” of Life. I need to write my own “mission statement” as well as my own “ethical will.” Until I do, I’m going to adopt her two goals and to try hard to achieve them: to be useful and to be happy. And to all of you whom I am privileged to know – so many “grande dames” and “grands hommes”, so many elders-in-training -to-be sages, so many women and men of “Chochma” (Wisdom), I am wishing you a Lovely Holiday Season and a New Year Full of Happy Usefulness and Bountiful Joy!