Don’t Worry, Be Happy

NW Carmen MirandaMy maternal grandmother was always happy. At least that’s how I remember her. Her birthday was in mid-March, so I think of her often this time of year.

As I’ve mentioned before, we called her Nanny Winnie. She was too light-hearted for “Grandmother,” though she could have been a “Granny.” But “Nanny Winnie” is what stuck. Even my friends called her “Nanny Winnie”.

When my sister found out that our grandmother’s name was really Winifred, she said, “Winifred? How weird.” I’m sure my sister thought “Nanny Winnie” was written on our grandmother’s birth certificate.

Nanny Winnie repeated that story endlessly throughout the remainder of her life, always with a chuckle.

Nanny Winnie was an extrovert in a family of introverts. Her husband, my grandfather, was stern and practical. Her daughter, my mother, was quiet and studious. My mother told me once that her mother’s outgoing ways embarrassed her when she was a teenager.

Of course, we all think our mothers are embarrassing when we are teenagers. But I could see how my grandmother, who struck up conversations with everyone she met, would have made my reserved mother want to disown her, though I thought Nanny Winnie was wonderful.

I’m sure my memories are not entirely accurate. I remember Nanny Winnie through the lens of a devoted child. She was the woman I aspired to be because of her optimistic cheerfulness.

As I grew up, I learned that her life wasn’t always happy. Her mother died when she was still a teenager. She lost her first husband when she was only 58, and her second when she was 65. She had some health problems, as did her only son.

She suffered from dementia for the last decade of her life. But we called her “happily demented,” because her cheerful personality survived throughout the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

Nanny Winnie loved to laugh, and loved to make others laugh. Even at her own expense.

The picture above is of my grandmother dressed as Carmen Miranda for some costume party. I don’t know when or where the party was, but I’m sure my grandmother was the life of it. This photograph is so indicative of her personality that my mother chose to display it at Nanny Winnie’s funeral.

NW Bo PeepAnd the second picture is of another costume party—this time my grandmother went as Little Bo Peep. As you might be able to tell, she wore parts of the same fruit-printed outfit in both pictures, so the parties were probably close in time. As Carmen Miranda, she wore both the top and skirt, though the skirt was draped unusually. As Little Bo Peep, the skirt became an apron.

And she wears a big smile in both costumes as she poses for the camera.

That skirt and top made their way into the bag of dress-up clothes I later played with (though I never pretended to be either Carmen Miranda or Little Bo Peep). The top was as long on me as a dress and wide enough to fall off my shoulders. The skirt became my shawl or cape, depending on the day.

But I don’t think my smile ever equaled Nanny Winnie’s. I’ve never been a ham like she was. I inherited the introvert genes. But I still wish I were more like her.

What family pictures make you smile?

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  1. I think Nannie Winnie is wonderful too, Theresa. What a great photo! I’m so happy to hear her cheerful personality survived the ravages of Alzheimer’s…that provides me with some comfort for what my future my hold with my mother.
    I have a picture of my Mamaw that always makes me smile.

    • Jill,
      Although every person is different, I’ve found that the people I’ve known who got Alzheimer’s retain some essential aspects of their personalities, though so much is lost.
      My friend Deborah Shouse has written a wonderful book about her journey with her mother, Love in the Land of Dementia. You can find out more about it at
      Blessings to you and your mother,

  2. I so enjoyed this and wanted to tell you. And it’s timely! Another friend and I were talking about how we needed to talk/write more about happy and leave the chaos of the world to sort itself out without us for a while. We agreed that listening to Pharrel Williams sing “Happy” was about the best use of our time in the car. So thanks for a “Happy” post.

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