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She was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year…but the year wasn’t yet over.

by Sherry Ortiz  (as appeared in Guidepost)

Smiling jar






You know how sometimes a bad day turns into a bad week? I felt like I was having a bad year. And it was only July. July 25, to be exact. I thought glumly about my gratitude jar, sitting on the bookcase in my living room.

The year started with my marriage of 29 years falling apart. In February my husband filed for divorce. I moved into a small rental house in May. A new place would help me heal. Still, sometimes the quiet and solitude got to me.

Even when something good happened, it was tinged with sadness. My two younger daughters, Samantha and Sophie, joined AmeriCorps. I was so proud of them. But come fall, they’d be off to Alaska and California, and I’d have a really empty nest.

I’d thought this month would be different. It began with a bang. Well, a little bundle of joy. My oldest daughter, Nicole, had a baby boy—my first grandchild. They lived two hours away, though, and I wouldn’t get to see the baby as often as I wanted.

July 25 was my birthday. I woke up determined to be happy and grateful, to see the silver lining, not the cloud… only to find that my 16-year-old dog had passed away.

That was the last straw. What is there to celebrate? I wondered. I can’t even think of one thing to put in my gratitude jar!

The jar was a project I’d started just after New Year’s. My marriage was spiraling down, and I needed a way to keep myself from going down with it. I wrote what I was thankful for on slips of paper and put them in a glass cookie jar labeled Año de Gratitud, Spanish for “Year of Gratitude.” I tried to keep up with it a few times every week.

1/11/13: Dinner and a movie with Sophie! I wrote on the first slip.

2/25/13: Thank you, Lord, for your peace. Life wasn’t exactly peaceful, but reading my Bible was helping.

5/21/13: Thank you, Lord, for my friendly new neighbors.

I was so broken up losing my dog on my birthday that I couldn’t face my gratitude jar all week. Finally I remembered that the girls would be visiting in late August. 8/1/13: Can’t wait to have all my girls together—and my grandson too.

The day of their visit arrived. Nicole gave me my grandson to hold. “Just sit and relax,” she said. She and her sisters took over my kitchen. I heard chopping, the oven door opening and closing and lots of whispering.

“Can I help in there?” I asked.

Relax, Mom!” they said, almost in unison. I laughed. Already, I felt my spirits lifting.

Dinner was delicious—ziti with roasted zucchini and cheesecake-stuffed strawberries for dessert (the girls got the recipes from favorites that I’d pinned on Pinterest). Afterward, we sat in the living room. Nicole took the baby. “Close your eyes,” she told me.

I did. Something light landed on my lap. I looked. A birthday card. So that’s what all this fuss was about!

“Close your eyes again,” Sophie said.

“There’s more?” I asked. This time a heavier object was placed in my hands. I opened my eyes. I was holding a big glass jar hand-painted with vivid swirls of color—red, turquoise, yellow, purple, green. It was full of equally colorful scraps of paper.

“What is it?” I asked.

“We know you love your gratitude jar,” Sam said. “This is our version. Instead of putting something in, you take something out. We call it the smile jar. There’s a note for every day of the year. Go on, try it.”

A jar of smiles? I dug in and pulled out a yellow paper. “What kind of shoes do spies wear?” I read aloud. On the back was the answer: “Sneakers!” We all cracked up. I pulled out another: “The best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time.” Just the balm my hurting heart needed.

First thing the next morning I grabbed a cup of coffee and wrote my note for the gratitude jar.8/26/13: Thank you, Lord, for my girls and their creative way of starting my day. Then I dipped into my new jar. “Thanks for teaching us that people are more important than things,” it read. I felt a big smile warm my face. My girls were right.

That became my morning routine. Sometimes I’d get encouragement: “I’ve always believed you are brave.” Other times I’d get another silly joke: “What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus!” The handwriting gave away which daughter was the contributor.

On really hard days I double-dipped. After a tough time at divorce court, I reached into the jar. “What a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives haven’t happened yet.” Reminds me of Jeremiah 29:11, I thought, God promising a hope and a future.

On New Year’s Eve, I dumped my gratitude jar out onto the floor and counted the memories. I hadn’t had a bad year after all. It was full of changes, some of them daunting, but God had been with me. He’d taken care of me. And as I looked at my smile jar, it struck me that my girls had taken care of me too. All part of God’s plan.

I grabbed a slip of paper.

1/1/14: Thank you, Lord, for the blessing of fresh starts.

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