When I was a kid, I used to love sitting in the kitchen with Mom while she made dinner. She had a little stool where I’d kick back and talk about the day with Mom as she cooked, and there was even an occasional snatch of food that made its way to me with a wink and a smile.
I remember one such late summer afternoon hanging out with Mom when the phone rang.
Mom answered, listened, then said, “Hi, Maria” (I knew that was Mrs. Wilson, a mom from down the street with six kids).
Another pause while Mom listened.
“Yes, I’ve got plenty. I can never get my kids to eat them!” Mom said.
She listened again, then laughed.
“Me, too,” she said. “I disguise mine. If they see them, they’ll make faces and push them to the edge of their plate. But they love their spaghetti, and chili, and everything else I make with them, even though they claim to hate them.”
Another pause, and Mom laughed again.
“I’ll send it in a brown paper bag to hide it!” Mom laughed.
Another pause, more laughter.
“Ok, I’ll send Jake right down with it,” Mom said.
Another pause, then Mom signed off: “Sure thing!”
She hung up the phone and, laughing to herself, went to the pantry.
She got out an onion and put in in a brown paper lunch bag.
“Will you run this down to Mrs. Wilson for me?” Mom asked, holding it out to me. “She needs it for dinner.”
“Ok Mom,” I said, taking the bag.
I turned to run out the door (as a kid we ran everywhere; maybe that’s why God loves kids, they’re always making haste like Mary on her way to the hill country).
But just as I was poised to launch, Mom put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. “Wait a sec,” she said, and started laughing again. “Let me see that onion again.”
I handed the bag back to Mom, and she put it on the kitchen counter. Then she reached down a Sharpie marker from a kitchen cabinet. With the marker she drew a black, Zorro style mask on the onion, turning it into a Vidalia bandit. She put the masked onion back in the bag and handed it to me, still chuckling.
“There you go,” Mom said, “you can run it down to Mrs. Wilson now.”
So I ran down the block to make the drop.
I went straight to Mrs. Wilson’s kitchen at the back of the Wilson’s house. All the windows and the backdoor were open, just the screen door was closed, and the tumultuous sound of her brood spilled out, along with an overpowering smell of garlic and oregano wafting through the windows on a great, billowing cloud of steam rising from a giant, gleaming, copper-colored pot bubbling on the stove. I never heard Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name, but I bet it was Italian. I don’t know what my momma’s Polish kitchen smelled like to outsiders (you never notice the signature aroma of your own house)—maybe it was potatoes and cabbage—but there was no mistaking the olfactory imprint of Mrs. Wilson’s kitchen: Old Sicily, through and through, from the pasta to the prosciutto, the meatballs to the basil. Entering into the cloud of Italian scented steam, I knocked on the screen door, ready to make my brown-paper-bag drop for the Momma Mafia.
“Hi, Jake!” Mrs. Wilson said, calling above the din of rowdy kids.
“Hi, Mrs. Wilson!” I answered. “Mom sent me to give you this.”
Mrs. Wilson came to the screen door and opened it, and I passed in the brown bag.
“Tell your Mom thanks!” she said.
“Ok!” I answered and turned to go.
The screen door banged shut behind me, and I went around to the corner of their house, pausing for a second to eye their mulberry tree for any low hanging fruit ripe for the picking.
And then I heard Mrs. Wilson break into laughter: the Onion Bandit had struck!
It was a classic Mom moment—she’s always full of silliness, and it boils over like Mrs. Wilson’s bright copper pot into hijinks and capers of all sorts, along with Mom’s laugh, which is always quick in coming and long in lingering.
The Zorro-masked onion bandit was just another example of Mom’s Pauline approach to Christian life: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” Phil 4, 4.
The question I’ve always had is, how do you do that? How can you always be rejoicing? It’s not like you can spend all day lounging on a beach sipping a drink with a tiny umbrella sticking out of it.
But of course, ‘rejoicing always’ doesn’t mean being on a permanent vacation.
It’s more like what I’ve discovered cooking with kids is like. My kids love to help me in the kitchen, which is great—but potentially very messy (they are 5, 3, and 1), so I try to keep a tight rein their exuberant aid. My main strategy to moderate the mess is to let them stand on chairs at the kitchen counter and put things like veggies and mushrooms into pots. I chop, they plop.
My wife knows how I let the kids drop things into pots while making dinner, so one night when she got home for dinner and I told her, “We have a delicious dinner that Stephanie”—the three year old—“helped make,” my wife asked: “Oh really? What did you add Stephanie?”
Stephanie beamed with pride and said: “I put in the yummy.”
It’s always good to have someone in the kitchen who can add the yummy.
And that, I think, is the secret to St. Paul’s admonition to rejoice always. It doesn’t mean endless idleness or perpetual sunburn from days spent at the edge of an azure sea. Rejoicing always isn’t about external circumstances aligning themselves with our Caribbean fancies. We don’t “find” joy “out there, somewhere,” and it’s not the kind of thing that can be handed to us like a winning lottery ticket. Joy is up to us: we have to put the yummy in. We can inject joy into the things we do, even things as ordinary and everyday as lending veggies to a neighbor lady down the street.
I read something once from St. Thomas Aquinas that really surprised me. He said: “Joy is the noblest human act.”
That first of all indicates the importance of joy, that St. Thomas Aquinas would place it so high in the hierarchy of human endeavors. It also surprised me in stating that joy is an act, not the luck of the draw (as our modern culture so often claims). If joy is an act, then it’s a matter of choice and effort, of applying ourselves to create and nurture and appreciate joy. Which also implies responsibility.
And therein lays the challenge. At times joy comes easily (especially for parents who spend a lot of time in the presence of young children). But at other times, joy can be really hard (especially for parents who spend a lot of time in the presence of young children). Then there are the other times—the times we all know. They are different for everyone, yet the same: times of turmoil, of loss, trial, and darkness. And yet, even then, we are called to the noblest human act: joy.
Opportunities for joy don’t always come delivered right to our door, in the disguise of an Onion Bandit (though we should be alert to appreciate them when they do!). Often the openings for joy remain shrouded in darkness. But even in those time—especially in those times—we have to work to find the cracks where we can pour in a little joy.
Copyright 2014 Jake Frost