Sheila spoke well of us

IN small communities everywhere, it is customary for couples to be interviewed and photographed by newspapers on the occasion of their 50th or 60th wedding anniversaries. A couple will sit side by side like two trees that have grown up so close they have partially fused. And just like trees that have endured and flexed through many vicissitudes, these old people will reminisce about their trials and tribulations, giving credit here, rebuking with a touch of humor there. At some point, the question will come up, what is the secret of your shared happiness? Well, the wife may reply, he never lets a day go by without saying I love you. Or the husband will admit, in effect, that his old lady puts up with a lot, but she always manages to make him feel special. They endear themselves to those of us who are reading.

This business of making other people look good is an extraordinarily creative process, when you think about it. It starts as close to home as you can get, as a small disciplinary task on the part of people like those tried and true couples. My aunt, Sheila, exudes a similar quality.

I am by no means a perfect niece, and Sheila knows it, because she's one of the first people to whom I turn for support. If I am bathed in the same favorable light as the rest of her circle of friends and relatives, it has a great deal to do with Sheila herself. In her wisdom, she knows that opinions freely expressed can tint a personality darkly or brighten its hues. By consistently speaking well of us and seeing the best in us, she displays us to maximum advantage.

This generous depiction of others takes as much dedication and persistence as any art form. It means looking for small delights and beauties that may not be obvious to others; being alert to possibilities where compliments can be offered; having enough self-assurance not to slough off one's own shortcomings as the fault of the nearest person at hand; and, perhaps most important, it entails a light touch and a sense of humor. Or so it would seem if you try to analyze how Sheila accomplishes this effect.

It doesn't take too much delving into my memory to recall the titillating gossip that surrounded any of us at one time or another. There's a friend of Sheila's I haven't seen for years. Some people thought her arrogant: My lasting impression of her is a woman of excellent taste in clothes. Another, a tiny, fragile-looking woman, comes to mind as extraordinarily courageous, managing a farm alone under adverse conditions. There were those who considered her actions sheer stupidity. A former suitor of a family member, stubborn in his hopeful tenacity, came to be respected for his loyalty and sincerity. Credit for these positive interpretations belongs with Sheila.

Our mistakes and failings were not lost on Sheila; when she touched on them, it usually was with lighthearted drollery, although sometimes she had to make a quick turnaround to offer serious empathy. The art of generous portraiture is not, then, a question of disguising the truth; it is more a matter of deflecting attention from flaws and focusing on assets.

Mastery in the arts comes with practice and maturity. Personality portrayal would seem to be no different. Brush stroke by brush stroke each form takes shape until a full-blown portrait blossoms on the canvas.

If one is the subject of this kind of profile, it instills self-respect to see oneself presented from the right side. The aura that surrounds a portrait of this nature projects outward, spreading over those who observe it, influencing their reactions. It reflects back on the artist.

As such are the colors of loving and beloved elderly couples. As such is the palette of Sheila, my aunt.

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