One day, when I was about 10 years old, I stopped to see my grandmother on my way home from school (I always cut through her apartment to get to ours because she was often baking). I was upset by the news that we were going to be moving to a neighboring town. I was afraid about losing my friends and going to a new school. My grandmother sensed my anxiety and, after hearing my sad story, asked me if worrying about it was going to help. Of course I said “no”, in response she said
“Worry is wors ting, stop worrying.”
Everything with that woman was the worst thing. I can still hear her broken English way of saying it: “wors ting, dog in house” “wors ting, kiss on mouth” – store bought bread, wasting food, a dress without pockets, all “wors tings.”
Still, I did stop worrying, not just about moving, but about everything – to this day I simply don’t worry about most things. Many people will tell you not to worry about something, but most can’t back it up like my grandmother.
My grandmother was born in the Beckah Valley in Syria in 1886 and became one of too many women in a poor shepherd’s family. Adding persecution to poverty, her family was part of the struggling Orthodox Christian minority. My great-grandfather knew his daughter’s future was bleak. When she was 13, he took her and two of her sisters to Beirut. Once in Beirut, he quickly arranged to marry his three daughters to three brothers who were sailing to America.
My grandmother and her husband settled near Pittsburgh, PA. They built a store with some apartments that they could rent and they started a family that would include eight children by 1923. Things were looking up for a while but in 1927 her husband and their two oldest daughters were killed in an automobile accident. She was left to fend for herself and to raise her children, the youngest of which (my father) was only four years old.
With no marketable skills and only a basic understanding of English, my grandmother was ill-equipped for the task that lay ahead of her. The Great Depression in 1929 thrust her back into poverty. She was a poor, widowed mother with four children still at home but she survived. The fact that she never worried about her survival is one of the important lessons I learned from her.
A few years after we moved, my grandmother suffered a stroke that left her with memories of her early life but no short-term memory. She was able to care for herself, but she needed constant companionship and I was often that companion.
Being with a person who lacks short-term memory can be grueling, especially to an impatient teenage boy. She would tell me a story, then, having forgotten that she told me the story, she would repeat it. This cycle of storytelling would go on without end. Initially to ease that particular boredom, I started asking questions, just to get her to talk about something else.
It’s not as simple as saying “Sita, (Syrian for grandmother) can you tell me more about that?” Because she had already forgotten what ‘that’ was. I had to work to analyze each thread and form a question to lead that thought forward.
She would tell me about tending sheep in Syria and the dangers from groups of thieves and packs of hyenas and I would ask her if she had a dog with her at the time.
“Yes,” then she described how their dogs stayed with the sheep. Inevitably that would lead to: “in this country, dog is in house – dog in house, wors ting!” At that point we had to return to Syria. “Sita, how long did you stay out with the sheep at night when you were a little girl?”
As I asked these questions, my grandmother revealed bits and pieces of her truly interesting life – cycles of poverty and adventure. Each answer encouraged more questions and my mission became to find out as much as I could about this fascinating woman.
One day I asked her “Sita, you say you don’t worry about things but how could you not worry about your life after your husband died?” She told me again, “worry is wors ting” and she added: “St. George took care of me.” St. George was the patron saint of her church. She didn’t worry because she had faith in God. That struck me as a remarkable amount of faith – to simply trust God to handle the mess that was her life – that was a Biblical amount of faith.
Another time I said “Sita, you talk so often about the bad things that happened in your life and the scary times you lived through but you never sound angry. Why is that?” She said: “anger is wors ting.” Of course it is; what isn’t? I thought. She went on: “anger festers inside (poking her chest) and turns to hate and hate is wors ting.” The conversation returned to the old country, to her memories of religious persecution, St. George and the salvation she found through life in America. Then the cycle of stories would begin again.
Worry, anger and hatred were all evil in her mind. What my grandmother knew but couldn’t express was that worry can be debilitating. Worry can prevent you from rising to the challenges in life while your fear and anxiety become self-fulfilling prophecies. What she knew and expressed quite well was that anger unchecked fosters hatred and hatred truly is the worst thing. She died 42 years ago today. I don’t think she was worried at the time.