My mom’s name is Ellyn Joy Weisfeldt Margulies. From the day she was born, she was stuck with joy being a part of her life whether she wanted it to be or not. As a consumer of mass media, I know that the classic response to such a prescriptive name would be to live in lifelong defiance of her so-called destiny, ultimately coming to begrudgingly accept the attribute that was bestowed upon her. But not my mom. With defiant fervor, my mom embraces joy as a defining principle. Her primary goals are living her life joyfully, bringing other people joy and looking to the future through a lens of joy.
The word “joy” itself brings her joy. Seeing the movie Joyful Noise was an event for us when it came out. Whenever I walked into my parents’ room growing up, whether it was to share good news or bad, because of a nightmare or funny story from the day, I would be greeted by a multi-colored placard not much bigger than a index card hanging from my mom’s dresser with Joy written in wire on it. It served the same purpose as a caution sign, a fair warning that whatever you were about to say, you should at least consider saying it with a joyful mindset.
My mom’s particular brand of joy is what she calls adopting an “attitude of gratitude.” How does one adopt an attitude of gratitude, you ask? Well, first you make saying “thank you” your religion. The power of saying “thank you” simply cannot be underestimated. An audible “thank you” to anyone holding the door for you; thank you notes and phone calls for every birthday present; thank you cards to the mail carrier, garbage collector and newspaper delivery driver every holiday season; and tell your kids that you thank God for them every night. Express your gratitude to everyone around you, and naturally you will develop an eye for the things around you that you should be grateful for.
My mom doesn’t just live by her middle name, she proselytizes it. When I was in first grade, my mom came to our pre-Thanksgiving harvest festival to make a gratitude tree with all of my classmates. At age six, I was thoroughly convinced that both my mom and school were very cool (based on this article, you might be convinced that I still believe at least one of those things). And here she was having my classmates and me write out all of the things we were grateful for onto leaves and hang them on a branch sticking out of marbles in a terracotta pot. That pot sat in the front office of my elementary school for many years and for many more years in my mudroom as a daily nudge to think about what I could be adding to the tree.
My mom believes in making the mundane more fun than it has any business being. One of our favorite ways to spend time together is by going on walks. Except, with her, walks aren’t just walks. They’re skips and gallops and, in her case — definitely not mine — doing as many cartwheels in a row as possible until she’s dizzy enough to fall on the ground. I often joke that the reason I’m such a fast walker is because I spent my childhood trying to keep up with my mom as she bounded through walks in our hilly neighborhood.
When we were waiting outside in the cold for something, we would do jumping jacks, and when we were holding hands, we would communicate through patterns of squeezes. As my mom knows as well as anyone, life is full of trials, challenges and moments that are just plain unpleasant, but she professes that if you embrace an “attitude of gratitude,” there is no reason to let any moment when you could be joyful go to waste.
Striving toward joy doesn’t mean you always succeed. I don’t tell you these stories to claim that my mom is never sad or frustrated or angry or that we should strive to be 100% happy 100% of the time. Nor is it an invitation to not take anything seriously. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been chided, “Alanna, stop being facetious.”
Rather, joy is a lens through which to see the world and also a long-term aspiration. The highest praise I ever receive from my mom is when she calls me the eternal optimist, a trait I most certainly picked up from her. Being an optimist means that I believe in the inherent goodness of today and the potential for tomorrow to be even better. And there is no better way to secure such a belief than to know that there is at least one person who has joy ingrained into who she is. Though joy is not literally my middle name (it’s Price, in case you were wondering), being raised by Ellyn Joy has instilled in me that joy is something worth working for.