When Grace Comes as a Trophy

The Best Rewards (and Awards) Are the Ones We Didn’t Earn

Sarah Condon / 5.19.20

My mother has been going through things lately. Like many people right now, she has time on her hands to unload the boxes that were lovingly packed away decades ago with the best intentions about the then-present “meaning” but with little regard for how callous time might make us.

She has sent me photos of all kinds of things with the message “keep?” typed in the text box. Anything to do with old boyfriends is a toss. I’ve been married so long I have forgotten I ever had boyfriends. And hopefully they have forgotten me. There was a tea set my daughter would appreciate. And a doll I told her to send until I realized how much money it was worth. My daughter will never see that doll; it will help pay for college instead.

Last week my mother sent me a photo full of athletic trophies and commented that my children might think these were really impressive. She was right, they would have. But I would have hated looking at them. I played soccer, basketball, softball, and tennis. And I despised all of it. And it struck me that a trophy would have been a lie sitting there on the shelf. I was never an athlete.

But then she sent me a photo of a trophy with a beauty queen on top and said, “But what about this one?”

I would have given my left ovary to have been in a beauty pageant. As a young child in Mississippi, all of that hair-and-tulle-induced glamour was something I aspired to. My parents had other goals for my childhood. It was filled with NPR, stand-up comedy, and going to church. None of these activities warranted a puffy dress and lipstick on an 8-year-old.

I know, how horrible of them.

So this photo of a pageant trophy threw me for a moment. I had a vague memory of it but I thought, where the hell did that come from?

As the story goes, many moons ago, my aunt owned a trophy shop. So my grandmother thought it would be a brilliant idea to give little girl Sarah an entirely unearned beauty pageant trophy. It depicts woman in plastic gold, donning a crown and sash and holding a massive bouquet of flowers. It even has my name inscribed on it and reads underneath “5 years old.”

I immediately texted my mother back, “KEEP THE BEAUTY QUEEN I LOVE HER.”

It was strange to realize how different my response to the trophy offerings had been. That batch of sports trophies was a reminder of all of my athletic failure, how I had tried to earn my keep on a team but had been one disastrous performance after another. It felt like something I never deserved and certainly something I would never want to display.

But this other trophy, this trophy that proclaimed my kindergarten self the most beautiful—this is something I will cherish forever. It was an event I never participated in. There were not even other contestants. It was competition that was won on my behalf through sheer love of me.

I suppose in this tumultuous and unknown summer, going through old boxes is a good practice. In truth, I think I might be more excited about that trophy now than when my grubby little hands first held it. It embodies the hilarity and the joy that I crave as I get older. Which is really what grace feels like to me. It has a way of coming from the outside and sneaking up on us, packed away all those years, just waiting to surprise us with how loved we really are.