If joyfulness is an art, Mom was the Mona Lisa

Andrew Homan is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Andrew Homan is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune. Tacoma

My mother was joyful, though she had every reason not to be.

She was born during the Great Depression and went to elementary school as the country went to war. For the first 12 years of her life, the country struggled with scarcity, rationing and fear.

Her mother was murdered just a year after she and my father married. In the five months before she turned 30, her father-in-law and mother-in-law both died of cancer. Just a month after her 30th birthday, her father died of a sudden heart attack. She delivered a daughter into the world only to see her die the same day.

My mother lived through bouts of depression, wars, death, loss, alcoholism, the Cold War and double-digit inflation. She struggled with obesity and had to confront surgery for a brain tumor. And yet she was joyful.

She became a widow at 57 when my father died from leukemia. She was given two years to live after a blood disease diagnosis and lived nine.

Perhaps, as her son, my judgment is biased, but she was easily one of the most joyful people I have ever known. Not all the time, of course. She grieved when my father died, cried over many losses and could, on rare occasions, get very angry.

It was extremely rare, now that I think about it, but one time in my late teens she got so angry at somebody that I actually had to teach her how to give them the middle finger.

I believe this is the first key piece of being joyful: fully experiencing the harsh moments in life when they arrive. Feel grief when loss occurs. Sit with sadness when disappointed. Be angry when injured, but quick to forgive.

Allow the emotion to have its moment and give room and time to heal. Trust that joy and happiness will soon return. (And, perhaps, find better ways to express anger than using our middle fingers.)

The second thing that made my mother so joyful? She genuinely loved everybody. She was uniquely interested in and cared for nearly everyone she met. She could tell you their stories because she had listened intently to them and cared about the storyteller, even if she barely knew them.

I don’t think I understood this long ago, but I’d be willing to bet that no matter what the event or activity, she was in it for the stories.

But the root of her joy was her fascination with even the simplest things. A butterfly. The burble of a creek. The color of a duck’s feather that delighted her so much she had it matched and it became the color of our family room.

She appreciated the shape and texture of rocks. Hummingbirds. Words. Music. Her garden, any garden. She could see the miracle in all things that grew in or on this earth.

I believe this was the most important key to my mother’s joy: She knew miracles don’t have to be spectacular Hollywood-produced affairs. They don’t have to be walk-on-water or turn-water-into-wine moments. Miracles can be as simple as the spiral of a snail’s shell, a toddler’s ticklish toes or the aroma of a rose.

The word “miracle” comes from the Latin “mirari,” which simply means “to wonder at.” My mother understood that miracles were present and accessible in even the simplest moments. She understood we live in a world full of wonder, that there is a wonder-filled world right in front of us, all day, and every day.

Yes, my mother was joyful. If I could ask her why, her likely answer would be, “Why would you choose otherwise?”

Writer Annie Dillard said, “We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us.”

And I know for a fact we can do this even when everything around us says otherwise. In struggle and strife, through grief and great challenges, we can always choose joy. This isn’t just a theory. My mother was living proof.

Andrew Homan of University Place is a network administrator at the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties. He’s one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at NoelNHoman@gmail.com and read some of his other work at www.andrewhoman.com