“For the ends of being an ideal grace,” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnets from the Portuguese 43: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”
She always tried to be the ideal Grace. Her mother wanted a girl who was quiet and good. Her father wanted a child that “did things.” Her teachers wanted the “straight-A” student. Her church wanted a pure heart.
She tried to be the ideal Grace. In fifth grade when she was eleven, she read about the three Graces in Greek mythology. Her teacher, Ms. Wraven (the “w” was silent) gave her a book on the Graces: Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. As the Only Child, Grace decided she was oldest, middle, and youngest in her family, all at the same time.
Grace tried to imagine herself as all three of the Graces together. Thalia, the oldest, brought festivity and rich banquet. The middle Grace, Euphrosyne, laughter, and the youngest, Aglaea, order and good conduct. They loved to dance in a circle to Apollo’s music with the nymphs and muses, according to the legends in Grace’s book.
Grace tried to imagine herself as the best Grace, as the amalgam of all three of the Graces: festive, laughing, and well-behaved. At night in her room after the lights were out she practiced being festive, mirthful, and orderly. She most wanted to be the ideal Grace. But no matter how much she practiced, she could not get the knack of being all three at the same time.
When she mentioned this to Ms. Wraven one morning, her teacher smiled and said, “Why not take turns? You could be one at a time, each on a different day!”
That sounded like an excellent idea to Grace.
On the first day she was Thalia, decorating her desk at school and her room at home with cut-outs of wildflowers and rabbits that she printed off the Internet.
On the second day, as Euphrosyne, she memorized jokes from a joke book she checked out at the school library. “What is purple and goes, slam! slam! slam! slam!” was one: “A four-door grape.” Her friends Annalisa and Jo laughed at her jokes on the bus ride on the way home.
Her parents were not as amused. She tried to tell the jokes she’d learned in the joke book at dinner, but her mother only said to finish eating her dinner so she’d have time for homework before bed, and her dad was checking his email from work on his iPad at the dinner table. Unfortunately, he completely missed the jokes.
On the third day, Grace became Aglaea, the orderly and well-behaved Grace. Nothing unusual happened. She tidied her room when she got home from school, even though it was already tidy, because she had always been expected to be tidy by her parents.
Day Four: back to Thalia. But when she got to school she decided to talk to Ms. Wraven. Since her parents’ poor response to her jokes as Euphrosyne, she was starting to feel like all her efforts were in vain. She told Ms. Wraven so.
“Why is that?” Ms. Wraven asked.
“Well, they just don’t get it,” Grace said.
“Maybe they don’t have a sense of humor,” Ms. Wraven said, smiling. “But that does not mean you can’t have one. It’s not hereditary, you know.”
Grace thought about this. Everyone needs a sense of humor. She had been trying to be the ideal Grace. But now she realized she needed to be her own Grace.
That night she tried again. She set the table as Aglaea would have, but this time she got out the white candlesticks they used for Christmas dinner, and she put out red paper napkins and tall water glasses. When her mother came in the door from her job at the museum, and her father came out from the back office room where he did his work from home, she greeted them with a large smile and said, “I made dinner!” (She was almost twelve, after all.)
It was only macaroni and cheese for dinner, but her parents were surprisingly cooperative. And pleased. They complimented her on the table setting, and her father asked her if she was planning on going into the restaurant business when she got older. She looked thoughtful, and then she said, “Let’s just say I’ll always be the ideal Grace.”
After dinner she got her parents’ attention, and she said, “I’d like to tell you a joke. Listen, please.” They did.
She told her favorite joke: “Why didn’t Tarzan recognize the elephants when they came over the hill?” Answer: “Because they were all wearing sunglasses!’
The joke didn’t make that much sense, but it was funny. Her mother looked vaguely puzzled, but her father smiled. He said he liked the joke, and he nudged her mother until she said it was a good joke, too.
From then on, Grace did her best to be the ideal Grace: her own Grace.