During one Minnesota snow storm a few years ago my in-laws’ neighbors ventured outdoors, camera in hand, to snap a photo of a rare sight: Jon, my father-in-law, snow-blowing the driveway.
You see, my mother-in-law Janice took care of things like that. She took care of everything – and everyone – and she did it with seeming ease. She fixed appliances, changed the furnace filter, painted walls, snow-blowed the driveway, mowed the lawn, trimmed shrubs, planted flowers, sewed curtains, cooked a mean pot of sloppy Joes, baked an apple pie from scratch with the flakiest crust you could ever imagine, raised two of the kindness men I know and doted on her husband and grandchildren. Oh, and she was an artist, too.
One day a few years ago I launched my “Janice Campaign” – an attempt to emulate my mother-in-law’s domestic prowess and learn to do things myself without always having to ask Brad for help.
I lasted 24 hours. I think it was a broken light bulb still in the fixture that did me in – I couldn’t fathom how to remove it. Brad called Janice, and she suggested we squeeze a raw potato over the jagged shards and twist the broken bulb off that way. It worked. Of course it did.
The thing is, Janice didn’t perceive these chores to be a burden, like I so often do. She embraced them as part of her role as mother, homemaker and wife. She served her family willingly, joyfully and gracefully. Without complaint.
In the 17 years I knew her, I never heard Janice complain. Not about chores, not about the suffering she endured through five years of cancer and chemotherapy. Never once did I hear her utter a bitter or resentful or self-pitying comment. Never once did she bemoan her lot in life, the fact that her time would surely be cut short by the ravages of the disease. Never once did I hear her ask, “Why me?”
“How ya feeling today?” I’d inquire, and her response was always the same: “Oh just fine, pretty good. How are you? What’s happening with the kids?” Given the opportunity, I’d launch into a litany of complaints about fatigue or my frenetic schedule or the cold I had. And I’d only realize it later, after I’d hung up the phone: that I'd been consoled for my runny nose by a woman who had cancer.
The thing was, she sympathized; Janice truly sympathized. She didn’t offer empty consolation or think to herself, “I can’t believe her nerve, complaining about a silly cold.” I know she didn’t think that. Because Janice wasn’t that way. Janice truly cared about others, about our supposed suffering, about how we were feeling. She always, always sacrificed her own needs for those around her. No matter what her circumstances.
I couldn’t have asked for a better, kinder, more loving, generous, life-giving mother-in-law. Her love and generosity, her spirit, lifted me up for 17 years and will continue to do so every day for the rest of my life.
Janice Johnson was, in a word, graceful. And I am blessed that her light shone directly on me.
Janice Mae Johnson
March 21, 1941 - September 18, 2010
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
Painting of Caribbean boats by Janice Johnson, 1998.