The Doc Project

My 90-year-old grandmother's secret to happiness? Just smile and keep looking up

Veronica Simmonds wants to know the secret to her Grandma Judy's unflappable positivity.

Veronica Simmonds wants to know the secret to her Grandma Judy's unflappable positivity

Judy Simmonds, smiling in Florida. (Veronica Simmonds/CBC)

Earlier this year I went to visit my grandmother in Florida. It was a rare and precious opportunity to spend some quality time with one of my favourite people. She had recently broken her shoulder and needed a bit of help around the house. But don't for a minute think that a damaged limb could stop her from smiling.

My grandmother is the happiest person I know.
Judy Simmonds all dolled up as a Rockette, circa 1950s. (Submitted by Veronica Simmonds)

She is on fire with the spark of life, constantly singing.  I mean it. She really has a song for every possible occasion. Need someone to pass the gravy? "It's the rich that get the gravy…." Walking through a tunnel? "Little Sir Echo, helloo... hellloo." 

She tells me that she learned to sing before she learned to talk. And when she's not singing, she is smiling. A wide, warm grin.

She tells me she was born happy. 

On March 9, 1929, Judy Simmonds entered the world and since then she's seen a lot of change. She remembers the horses' troughs that used to be at the corner of College and University, she remembers milk delivered to her door from the milkman.

She remembers, as a young Jewish girl, walking at the Toronto waterfront and seeing signs saying "No Jews or dogs allowed." 

But throughout her life she has always maintained a joie de vivre. 

She is the life of every party she has ever been to. She once sat on Harry Belafonte's knee and sang, "I'm just wild about Harry."

Judy with her late husband, Monty Simmonds. (Submitted by Veronica Simmonds)
But at 90 years old, she has experienced a lot of loss. Her husband and many of her dearest friends have died.

My grandma has recently taken some hard falls resulting in a broken arm, many stitches and black eyes. But whenever life tries to bog her down, she chooses to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (the title of one of her favourite songs).

In her life, she's decided for herself that she doesn't want to dwell on the negative. "You know, sometimes you can feel sorry for yourself,"  she tells me. "But for Christ's sake, get out of it. You just can't dwell on it because you don't get anywhere dwelling on sad things. It doesn't do you any good."

Smiling through it all

In the last couple of years, Judy's had some bad falls. But as you can see in these photos, no amount of bruises, stitches or bandages can wilt that indomitable smile.

These days, I feel like there is a lot of sadness to dwell on. I worry about the catastrophic realities of climate change, for instance. The persistent injustice facing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the persecution of LGBTQ people, racism in all its forms — the list goes on and on.

But in the face of it all, here is my grandmother, telling me that there's no point moping. "You've got to go on living," she says.

Judy enjoying her morning coffee on a sailboat. (Submitted by Veronica Simmonds)

So while I was visiting her in Florida, I sat down with her to try and learn the secret behind her felicity. The first thing I learned is it's important to have a regular breakfast that includes some unusual combinations.

"I have my ginger tea with a little cayenne pepper, then I have my prune juice with lemon in it, and then I have my half orange and then I have my Great Grain cereal with a little bit of a banana on it and my coffee. That's my breakfast."

I can't see myself drinking lemon prune juice or pepper tea anytime soon. But maybe it's worth a try? Though I might not have to, because my granny's biggest piece of advice for a happy life is actually really simple.

"My philosophy really is to face life with a smile." she says. 

"You know the thing that goes the farthest towards making life worthwhile, that costs the least and does the most, is just a pleasant smile."

Can it really be so simple? I don't know. But I love my happy grandmother and her unflappable philosophy. When I ask her what final advice she has for living a long and happy life?

"Smile!" she bellows!  "Be happy! Face life with a smile, be happy. That's the main thing."

Veronica Simmonds and her grandmother Judy Simmonds having a hug at Passover. (Submitted by Veronica Simmonds)

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of the page.

This story was produced by Veronica Simmonds.


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