Monday, May 14, 2018

Mother's Day

We're celebrating Mother's Day today (even though it was technically yesterday) with a potpourri of items. First out of the gate, an assortment of motherly cartoons from our good friend Johnny Optimism...

Based solely on these cartoons, you might guess we had an uneven relationship with our own mother - but nothing could be farther from the truth. The woman was a saint and deserves to be canonized; she knocked off at least 3 miracles every day before lunch. She was an artist, an intellect, a person with a wonderful sense of humor, and the warm heart of our family.

All that being said, there is a very special relationship between Mom and Johnny Optimism. And for those who haven't heard it before, we're repeating it for this Mother's Day edition...


In May 2010, I was having lunch with my wife and a good friend (an author) who complained that children's books these days all seemed to need a heavy-handed social message in order to sell. I joked that he should do a book about a terminally ill boy in a wheelchair named "Johnny Optimism."  And  that night, just to take the joke a step farther, I quickly roughed out this book cover and sent it to him:

Johnny optimism, johnnyoptimism, stilton jarlsberg, lance the dog, medical humor, wheelchair, origin

The next day, only a few days after Mother's Day, my Mom died unexpectedly. And for reasons I can't logically explain, I spent the following weeks expressing my grief by obsessively creating Johnny Optimism cartoons - hundreds of them - trying to somehow rediscover joy, laughter, or just a little relief in the very blackest of circumstances. And it helped me to laugh at life's pain (not at its victims) and realize that we're all like Johnny - just doing our best to cope with the odds heavily stacked against us.

Happily, Lance the dog made it into the strip without blindness or a bad cough. In fact, he's the bestest, most loyalest dog in the whole world and nothing bad will ever happen to him (my daughter made me promise).

I've never really explained Johnny's living arrangements, and in my own mind they've evolved over time. Currently, I see him living in a hospital environment where he's surrounded by other kids with interesting maladies, and inept or downright insane medical caregivers and guests.

During the day, he is mainstreamed at a regular school (which is why the school nurse is always calling to report the disaster du jour).

Early on, Johnny would sometimes mention his parents in the strips - but that element has largely disappeared. It seems to me that by freeing Johnny from traditional family structure and putting him at the mercy of a senseless bureaucracy, he becomes more of a symbol for all of us.

Johnny is near and dear to my heart. He has more courage than I do, he has bigger challenges than I do, and he faces them all with more grace and optimism than I could ever do.

And he serves as a gentle reminder that none of us is truly alone in feeling like the universe sometimes goes out of its way to throw pain and suffering our well as a reminder that it's always okay to laugh, even if we're sometimes just laughing at our own vulnerability. It's quite possibly the strongest thing we can do...and the greatest gift I received from my mother.


stilton’s place, stilton, political, humor, conservative, cartoons, jokes, hope n’ change, mother's day, mom, jo, johnny optimism

Hi, Mom! Looking good!

Her name was Johanne, but everyone called her "Jo." And it was only after I'd turned out literally hundreds of cartoons in her honor that I realized that Johnny Optimism's initials are "Jo."

Whether coincidence or fate, that gave me goosebumps. And still does.


j said...

What a pretty lady - and her eyes say so much. You were blessed to have shared her life for so long. I offer my heartfelt condolences on your loss/

Pete (Detroit) said...

Awesome Stilt, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to your mom. The warmth you expressed in your post was felt by me and I reflected on my own mother whom I lost in 1996m at 88 years. Please pass a Happy Mother;s day to your wife from me.

PS, I really enjoy Stilton's Place and am a huge fan, Keep 'em coming


mamafrog said...

Glad you had a good relationship with your mom and daughter (and of course, dear wife). I still have my mom, but things are getting to the point I'm worrying more about her, such is age and she's up there. My kids turned, in spite of what they did as kids, to be pretty good people. I still like them, and I'm awfully proud of them. We don't agree on politics or other subjects, but I can count on them when necessary and they seem to love me in spite of it! This year would have been miserable without them frankly and they give me a reason to get up every day, that and I have to feed three dogs who are really needy, lol. Tell your wife Happy Mother's Day from your readers, and give your mom a mental hug for us, she did good.

james daily said...

Marvelous tribute. The background on Johnny Optimism was really interesting. Oh, I got a two-fer this weekend, wife's BD and Mother's day were the same day. However that just meant two presents which was handled judiciously. Thanks for a wonderful column and cartoons, we needed that.

Anonymous said...

That was a great tribute to your Mom. Your words have the same feelings I do, though Mom is still here on this side, she will soon be slipping over the Great Divide. We've said what we wanted to say and made sure her wishes will be done for the service. Still though - hard. But we will move on.

Jim Lane said...

Fine tribute, Stilt; thanks for sharing.


Emmentaler Limburger said...

My mom's still here, and I stop by every day on my way to work and bring her a cup of coffee. "Good coffee!" she tells me every morning, and each repetition of it is a gift as we almost lost her earlier this year. I sit with her in her family room, The family room of the house I grew up in, the home my day passed away in, and her home for over 50 years. And I'll fight lions to keep her there until she wants to go.

We sit for a few precious minutes each morning watching either Fox and Friends, or some old movie on Turner Classic Movies. This weekend, my sister from Texas was in and staying with her, returning to Texas tomorrow. The movie this morning was a 1926 John Barrymore silent called "Don Juan". Both mother and daughter enjoyed all the Monty Pythonesque voices I made for the characters - sometimes reading the scene text, but most times making my own, more appropriate lines - until I had to drag myself away in order to go make my living. A wonderful time. One that, sooner or later, will be relegated to only being a memory.

Cherish your parents, if you still have them. If you are providing them care, never let them think its a burden to you. Be cheerful and loving with them. The loss of a parent is one of the hardest most of us will suffer. The only thing harder would be if you let them lose you emotionally beforehand...

Thanks, Stilt.

TrickyRicky said...

Awesome Stilton. What a stirring tribute to your Mom. It is hard to lose a parent, perhaps more difficult to know that eventuality is just around the corner. Either situation is heart wrenching.

Bill from Wood-Ridge said...

Very nice reflection, Stiltonian. Important that we think about our families and those close to us, and appreciate all that we have. Don't be distracted by the madness of micro-aggressions, safe spaces and sanctuary cities.

M. Mitchell Marmel said...

(raises a glass in memory)

Judi King said...

Your mom's lovely face reflects what kind of person she was.
Geoff and I lost our mother last fall so yesterday was kind of empty but I hope all of you who are mothers or still have yours had a great day.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Mom had a stroke on Mother's Day a year ago, which killed her at age 102 the next week, but she had all her kids at her place that day. It's been almost a year now, but her memory hasn't faded one bit. Thanks, Stilt, for sharing the wonderful tribute to your mom.

DougM said...

Thanks, Stilton
I lost my 94-yo Mom this past year, so it's my first Mothers Day without her.
She was a June Cleaver kind'a lady and looked like Donna Reed.

I'm glad you do J.O.
That way I don't need to watch "House" for my comedy.

James C said...

You aren't alone Stilton. My mother passed 11 years to the date the morning after Mother's Day. It hurt especially because I didn't call her the day before as I intended. We never know when the ones we care for will be gone so cherish them whenever you can while they are still with us.

Stilton Jarlsberg said...

@j- Thank you. I miss her a lot.

@Pete (Detroit)- Glad you enjoyed it!

@Ed- I think the readership of this blog is old enough that a lot of us have lost one or both parents. I lost my Dad first, then my Mom several years later. I didn't realize that even in my late 50's I'd feel so much like an orphan. Please accept my condolences about the loss of your mother.

@mamafrog- What a "feel good" comment, hearing about your lovely family! I've been blessed with Mom, wife, and daughter - all three of them exceptional. Lucky me!

@James Daily- Glad you enjoyed the behind the scenes peek at Johnny's relationship to my Mom. Granted, the relationship is a bit bittersweet...but just think how many things in life aren't sweet at all!

@Anonymous- So sorry that your Mom is fading. It's a very hard time, and the inevitability doesn't really help temper the pain. But I genuinely believe that love endures all things, including our losses. I'm glad that it sounds like you don't have unfinished business with your mother, and I hope her remaining days are filled with peace and happiness.

@Jim Lane- I just wish Mom had lived to see the Johnny cartoons; she would have laughed, then said "shame on you!"

@Emmentaler Limburger- You made me misty, you sonofagun. Wonderful post, and you do a wonderful job of painting a very special picture for us to share. Next time you drop off that coffee, give your Mom a hug for me.

@TrickyRicky- Losing a parent isn't like other losses; it's a big piece of your world pulled out from under you. And yes, it's cruel to know that "eventuality" is behind the corner for all of us. My daughter has started giving Mrs. J and me the occasional nervous look as we age, though I assure her we're not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Hey, we've made it this far!

@Bill from Wood-Ridge- Excellent point. There are so many distractions and aggravations lurking around every corner these days, and paying attention to them distracts us from what is important. With that very consciously in mind, I've turned down the volume on how much I care about most things political these days.

@M. Mitchell Marmel- I clink your glass, sir, and will then top it off for you.

@Judi King- I'm not sure that everyone can see the beatific glow in my Mom's face that I did, but I'd like to think so. Such a special lady (although I believe that all mothers are special). I'm so sorry for your loss and hope that in time Mother's Day will mostly be a day of happy remembrance and celebration for you.

@Anonymous- Yeah, a lot of that going around today (sniff)>

@Springer Pop- I'm very sorry about your mother. 102 is a good run, but never really enough. I'm glad you were all able to be with her at the end...and clearly she's still very much with you now.

@DougM- There's no way around the fact that "first Mother's Day without her" is one of the saddest sentences on Earth. And you say a lot wit "a June Cleaver kind'a lady" who looked like Donna Reed. Which was a great way to look, by the way!

Glad you enjoy Johnny, and I appreciate getting the chance to remind people about the actual heart lurking in that odd cartoon.

@James C- I'm sorry you missed that last phone call. I sure wish I'd had one more. As you say, it's important for us to cherish those closest to us every day.