“…the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” (Proverbs 15:15)
One cold winter in Massachusetts when Christy and I were little, our dad was away in Vietnam. War protestors stood outside the Air Force base where we lived and yelled obscenities at families as we entered and exited through the front gates. Dad (a pilot) and his crew members were in frequent danger of being shot out of the sky by surface-to-air missiles, and mom had a friend whose husband was missing in action. We corresponded with dad, and he with us, through letters that came and went in the very slow mail.
In the midst of this bleakness, paint was cracking and falling off the outside of the base houses in big, jagged patches, like some kind of metaphor for despair. The housing maintenance people were not inclined to paint, so my mom went and bought some paint herself. She stood on a wobbly stepstool in the snow, on tippy-toe, and painted over the bare spots the best she could.
After that, our house was polka-dotted (the white paint she bought did not match the existing white paint), but it was better than it had been.
Mom taught us to seek cheerfulness in unfavorable circumstances — and if we did not find it in our environment, to create it. (That same house had a kitchen so old and awful that mom Contact-papered the ugly counters in red-and-white gingham. To this day, every time I see red gingham anything, I feel happy.)
Throughout our childhood and teenaged years, when we woke up in the morning, things were cheerful. The curtains were open and light was coming in. If the weather was nice and we were in a house where the windows didn’t stick, mom would open the windows to let in the fresh air. She sang hymns when she washed the dishes, and listened to pretty music on the radio. There were usually flowers or a bowl of fruit on the table. There were always houseplants, and sometimes she sprouted avocado pits in a glass by the kitchen sink: tiny, beautiful science experiments. The refrigerator door was covered with photos of people she loved, and cartoons, and our artwork, and little love notes. During the holidays, there were decorations we looked forward to: a cornucopia of paper fruit at Thanksgiving, and in December, a light-up green ceramic Christmas tree with snow.
She kept house, and taught Christy and me to scrub floors and wash windows. She told us to do our chores “with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.” I didn’t like it, but I was an adult before I realized that maybe she didn’t always feel like doing chores, either. She did them because she liked the results — the cheerfulness of a clean house.
And she was so fun. She played board games with us, and sometimes left surprises on our beds to discover after school — a new box of Crayons, or an egg of Silly Putty, or a piece of paper with the etymology of a word on it (dandelion is from the French “dent-de-lion,” meaning “lion’s tooth”), or a Bible verse or new outfit for our Barbie dolls. She made food that tasted good and made the house smell good, and invited people over all the time. She’d mess with our rooms, so we’d come in and our stuffed animals would be having a tea party, or a teddy bear would be wearing clothes. She liked our friends, and talked to them and teased them, and thought up crazy stuff for us to do together. (She drove the getaway car for T.P.-ing houses, and put plastic pink flamingos in a General’s yard.) She let us have pets — dogs, cats, fish, birds, mice, and even an orphaned sheep — even though they made messes and increased her workload.
When we went out, she made friends with strangers. She smiled and maintained good eye contact, because she was genuinely interested. I was shy and can remember being impatient and angry with the grocery store checker who told my mom (what seemed to me) her entire life’s story every single week. We were holding up the people in line behind us, but mom was going to find out how that checker’s week had been — and then make friends with all the grumpy people in line behind us, too.
As a child, I didn’t fully appreciate mom’s cheerfulness. I took it for granted, and did not know it took hard work. I took the funny stories and the baked goods and the homemade Halloween costumes and mom’s big smile in stride. I assumed any home we lived in would magically become cheerful. I did not yet know how hard the world is, and how many people give up and float away toward unhappy, unGodly things. I did not know how many people run from cheerfulness, and how many moms and households are not cheerful.
As a wife and mother, I have come to have profound respect for the hard work my mom did to set us an example of cheerfulness. Her cheerful attitude and our cheerful environment showed us that she knew God was there, sustaining her. It showed us that she could trust Him in dark circumstances — and if she could, so could we. She showed us through example that heaven will be cheerful and hospitable because God is cheerful and hospitable. She showed us lightness, and steered us away from darkness. She still does this.
“The cheerful of heart has a continual feast,” says Proverbs 15:15, and this week, I read the following in the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible:
“Cheerfulness is wise — and surprising. This proverb does not contrast the afflicted with the cheerful of heart. Rather, this cheerful person is an afflicted believer, going through evil days, who nevertheless enjoys a spiritual feast within (cf. Acts 5:40–41; 16:25; 2 Cor. 4:8; 6:10; Heb. 10:34).”
And I think of my mom up on that stepladder in the snow, in the middle of the Vietnam War, touching up those bare spots and making something cheerful under gray, angry skies.
–Suzie B. 🙂