Joy, by definition, is a noun, an emotion, a singular term you can look up in the dictionary and understand through words, even if you’ve never personally experienced the feeling. My grandmother (pictured) was joy personified, walking, talking, smiling, cooking, baking, hugging, kissing, loving joy. She, unlike Merriam-Webster, made you understand it through action. She wasn’t a very tall lady—she claimed to be 5’ 4” on her driver’s license but I’m pretty sure she never stood taller than 5’ 1”, even after her most aggressive growth spurt. But she sure could fill any space with the presence of her joy and her unique brand of wonderful.
I think of all the impressive women and mighty doyennes of the pen who have earned my fandom and my admiration, sometimes my envy, but my grandmother is my personal heroine for the person she was. No fancy job or cosmopolitan lifestyle—she was a housewife who raised five kids in the rolling, rural splendor that is Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania. No gut-wrenching life story or memoir-worthy escapades—she stole a candy bar as a little girl and felt so guilty about it she returned it and the nickel she owed to the store owner and ran away. That’s about as scandalous as it got. A potential reality show starlet she was not. But she was all the things I aspire to be. Patient. Sincere. Thoughtful. Compassionate. Forgiving. She reveled in her family and adored the chubby little granddaughter who adored her right back.
Once, in the third grade, I somehow figured out how to make long distance calls from the nurse’s office at school. So I strolled on in, well within my right in my own mind, and dialed my Nana. After a couple of minutes of chatting about the goings-on on One Life to Live and what I had for breakfast that morning, she caught herself and asked me how I was calling her mid-morning and, when I cavalierly explained, she shooed me back to class. She was always the person I called. When I found out I got accepted into one, then all five of the colleges I’d applied to, she was the first to find out. And when I learned I’d hauled off and gotten pregnant in college, I called her first, too, sniveling and snotting through a weepy what-am-I-going-to-do meltdown, trying to figure out how we were going to tell my mama. She loved me unconditionally, acting the fool and all, and she was always there.
But always there isn’t realistic. It, like joy, is really just a term. No one can always be there always, and God called her home five years ago. Today would’ve been her birthday. Today she would’ve giggled like she did when she was a young girl and let us fawn and pet and swoon all over her. She told people not to make a fuss but she secretly liked the attention. I’m sure it felt good to get even a fraction of the love she was always doling out back in return. Everybody loved her. Everybody. I have a deep sense of pride in walking into her local grocery store and still having strangers ask me if I’m Mrs. Harris’ granddaughter and showering me with praise about her apple and cherry pies, her chicken corn soup, her sweet, sweet gentility. Sometimes they’ll proceed to get teary-eyed retelling how she touched or affected their lives simply by being her. And I always walk away with confirmation that she was as awesome to other folks as she was to me. Sometimes, people only show their goodness to their immediate families, but my grandmother shared hers with her little corner of the world. She wasn’t stingy, even in that way.
Every year I challenge myself to do something new on her birthday in her honor. It doesn’t have to be big or grand because we’re not big or grand kinda folks. It’s usually just a trip I’ve been planning to take or a new activity I’ve been meaning to try. She wanted her babies to live life fully and got a kick out the stories that those experiences produced. So this evening, I’m joining my first Meet-up group to go bowling. I don’t know any of these women, young sisters like me, who live in the Washington, D.C. area, but it doesn’t take long for me to get comfortable and make new friends. I am, after all, the granddaughter of the venerable Mildred Lula Jane Boddy Harris. (She would get me for telling y’all that). I carry her spirit inside me and to me, it’s my best feature.
Happy birthday, Nana. XOXO