Updated: Feb 23
A lesson in joy I learned from my mother
My mom was a riot.
Powdery orange Cheezies-sticking-out-of-her-nostrils, standing-on-the-table-at-a-party riot. Drinking alcohol wouldn’t even have to be involved. There was never an event or situation too solemn for a wisecrack or a smirk from my mom, Jane, just to get a laugh.
We grew up in a Dutch, church-going community. We went to church twice on Sundays, participated in the children’s choir, went to Sunday school, to church summer camp, to catechism classes. Whatever it was that we were supposed to do and join and participate in, we did, like most families that attended with us.
And it was good. I have lots of warm memories of friends and potlucks and celebrating Sinterklaas (the Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas) every December 5th in the basement of the sanctuary.
But anything too serious for too long was game over for my mom— silent prayer at the beginning of a church service, the benediction at the end, sitting quietly while my dad read the bible after dinner. None of these rituals were too sacred for my mom to risk pulling a funny face from across the table when we were supposed to be praying.
During a church service, while most congregants would be reverently awaiting the presence of the holy spirit, my mom was often guilty of stifling a snort or a giggle. We knew when this was happening because we could feel the wooden pew shaking ever so slightly.
Years ago I compiled a book of stories about my parents written by their family and friends. There are countless stories of escapades that mom instigated. If you didn’t want to play along, she didn’t care, she’d be happy to pull a prank on her own. I’m sure she was one of those people who thought she was hilarious. Most times, she was.
My dad thought so too. She was his breath of fresh air. They had the kind of love that you could see from the smiles on their faces. Cracking a joke loudly, all the attention on her, my dad would be grinning at her from across the party. He was happy and absolutely comfortable with her being in the limelight.
They had a rare, whole, comfortable kind of love.
As an adult, I can appreciate her lightheartedness in a world that can be so stoic and stiff.
As a kid, sometimes she mortified me.
I knew it wasn’t ‘right’ to be chuckling while the minister declared the coming of the Lord. And shouldn’t she be listening while my dad read the Today devotional (after dinner after the Bible reading) instead of sticking her tongue out to distract me from the Word of the day?
If she was around today, I wonder if her inability to keep a straight face would drive me nuts, or if she would have been my breath of fresh air too. Most days, I’m likely far too serious for what the world needs. No doubt, if she were still here, she’d remind me to lighten up on days when I fail to see much light.
The night my mom died, I was fourteen, exactly one week before my fifteenth birthday. She was killed in a collision that ended up taking three other lives as well (one of them was my dad, six weeks after lying in a coma).
It was a chaotic evening, the night we found out. We had just moved to a new city from out of province and so the relatives that lived in the area were like acquaintances to us kids. An aunt and uncle whom we hadn’t spent too much time with came over. Two ministers from the church we just started attending, basically complete strangers, came over. A lady from our new church who lived across the street and whom we’d only met once or twice was dialed up to ‘please go and be with the kids' until my relatives or the ministers could get there.
It was surreal and incomprehensible and otherworldly.
We definitely could have used a good mom joke around that shiny varnished table while we waited for phone calls from the two hospitals that my parents had been taken to. No lightheartedness or breath of fresh air would be walking through the door that evening.
Some moments from those nightmarish hours are as crisp as the focus square on my phone’s camera. Most of the night is completely gone from my memory.
I’m not sure where my younger brother and sister went for the night (there were four of us kids aged 7, 12, 14 and 16). My younger siblings didn’t stay at home, but my older sister and I ended up going to sleep together in her bed that night. My room would have felt too far away.
I don’t know how it started. We were beyond exhausted and sick to our stomachs and desperately heart-gutted lying there on our backs in the pitch black. But our mom touched us with her humour while we lay side by side. Her gregarious, carefree view of the world went beyond the grave and settled over my sister and me that night.
We began to recall funny stories about my mom. Which ones, I have no clue. All I remember is that before long we were busting a gut. Tears streamed from the far corners of our eyes onto our pillowcases because we were laughing so hard. Both of my arms were wrapped around my convulsing stomach.
It was loud and uninhibited and such a fabulous release.
To my uncle upstairs it must have sounded like crying — like loud, uninhibited sobbing. It was just the three of us left in the house. I guess it had been agreed upon that my dad’s brother would stay the night with us.
Poor Uncle W. He had just lost a beloved sister-in-law, and his kid brother was in a coma in a hospital an hour and a half away. The night had been so heavy for him as well.
He must have heard us with a sinking heart. His poor nieces sobbing their eyes out downstairs.
I remember hearing him come down the stairs. My sister and I must have shushed each other. We really didn’t want him to come in.
My sister’s bedroom didn’t have a door attached yet. My parents had put up a sheet until my dad could get a door put in place.
Pushing the curtain aside, we could hear our uncle’s sobs as he came into the room. I don’t remember any exact words that were spoken but I know he tried to comfort us as he laid himself face down, still crying, on the covers between my sister and me. We lay face up, thankfully not able to see each other.
Us girls stayed silent and once his sobs had ended he went silent too. Awkward for us but thankfully, not for him.
My uncle’s grief was tangible. When I think about it today, my heart is heavy for him that night. He couldn’t have known that he’d stepped into a precious time between two sisters.
That night with our uncle’s arms draped across us in that dark bedroom, my sis and I were holding back our laughter. How often had our mom done just that through the most serious of circumstances? Two chips off the old block we were.
Laughter like I experienced that night didn’t return for years, not that I can recall anyway. Now laughter has come back into my life, but not in the great quantity that it would have if my mom had stuck around.
My mom wasn’t perfect. I’m sure there would have been things that I would have picked apart had I had her around all these years. But I have no doubt that she would have been a breath of fresh air for me.
Of all people, I should understand how important it is to live each day as if it was my last. To hug more, to not take things so seriously, to make the most out of ordinary, everyday occurrences.
What my mom brought to the world was something few people can pull off so well.
These days, joy and laughter can be hard to come by. I’m not sure sticking Cheezies up my nose is quite my style, but if it can help to lighten hearts, maybe I’ll stop at the convenience store on the way to the party.
If I can even bring a touch of Mom to the world, then I would have added joy where I could.