DANVILLE, Va. — Philadelphia, Elvis, swinging and the beach are just a handful of the ingredients that went into Mrs. Nancy Emerson’s journal-turned-memoir, Joy in Difficult Times.
On Saturday, Emerson hosted an Author Meet-and-Greet event outside Karen’s Hallmark in the Danville Mall to promote her book. Emerson and her husband warmly greeted store customers and passers-by alike from the table displaying Joy in Difficult Times, Emerson’s moving account of seeking and finding joy in the life of her son, Steve, who lived with Down syndrome.
“It was a joy, always, with him, even though he was challenged,” Emerson said.
The book moves chronologically throughout Steve’s life, detailing the great lengths the Emersons took to help Steve grow as an individual and have fun while doing so. From working tirelessly to correct Steve’s coordination through a stimulation program in Philadelphia to studying the brain in day-long lectures, Emerson and her husband were willing to do whatever it took to give their son the best life possible. No matter the weather—literally and figuratively speaking—Steve and his parents continued to push through and to strive after joy.
While the book was completed a few years prior to COVID-19, the central message underlying Emerson’s work is particularly relevant to the pandemic, for her conviction that there is joy to be had, no matter the circumstances.
“Joy in difficult times: everybody’s had a difficult time having to deal with everything going on…[COVID-19] has really been devastating to a lot of people," Emerson said. "We’ve been blessed (we’re retired), and we know there are a lot of people hurting. So, if this [book] could help somebody, then that would be my joy.”
Even while facing the challenge of Down Syndrome, Steven Emerson lived a full life. The photographs featured in Joy in Difficult Times allow the reader a glimpse into Emerson’s journey as Steve’s mother, from running alongside him on the shores of Virginia Beach to cheering him on at the Special Olympics, where Steve enjoyed playing basketball and bowling, to greeting the congregation as they entered the doors of the church each Sunday morning.
“He would just sit there waiting patiently for people to come in. He loved church, and he loved singing. He loved music,” Emerson said.
A true jack-of-all-trades, Steve enjoyed playing the guitar and the keyboard in his home.
One of Emerson’s fondest memories of Steve involves a trip to Graceland, during which an absent Steve was discovered standing in awe before a portrait of Mr. Presley himself, unable to tear himself away from his musical hero.
“I want it to be a help to people to know that you still can smile, even if you shed tears. We laughed, we cried a lot, but we can still find those moments when we can think about things that Steve did that were funny…things that make us smile," Emerson said. "So, I’m just appreciative of all the memories that we had. Good memories.”
After Steve passed away in 2015, Emerson enrolled in Danville Community College’s creative writing course, where she enjoyed cultivating her storytelling skills despite being surrounded primarily by young adults. Over the past 54 years, Emerson had kept a journal detailing Steve’s life, so she decided to turn her journal into a book to encourage others.
Karen Johnston, owner of Danville’s Hallmark Store, was thrilled to promote Joy in Difficult Times, since it has always been the mission of the Hallmark Store to spread light to others and to incorporate the work of local artists and creators.
“We carry local books and local gifts," Johnston said. "We’ve carried [Emerson’s] book, and it’s done quite well,” Johnston said. “This book has inspired so many people who have gone through difficult times or any challenges in life, and it’s so uplifting. I just admire her so much that she took her situation and made something so positive come from it.”
Upon recognizing the power of literature to encourage and inspire, Johnston is proud to announce the unveiling of the Hallmark Store’s new Little Free Library for children, constructed and painted by students and faculty from Dan River High School. The concept involves the “take a book, leave a book” policy, which will hopefully help teach children that a book is a treasure to be shared.
“Several of our local book authors have put their books in there; it’s a community thing,” Johnston said. Initially, the children’s books in the Little Free Library were provided by the staff of the Hallmark Store, who bought the books themselves. Several other members of the community soon stepped up to help obtain books to donate to the Little Free Library, eventually connecting Johnston to the teachers who spearheaded its construction.
As more people gradually return to shopping, it is Johnston’s hope that the Hallmark Store will continue to be a blessing to others. After nearly 37 years, she celebrates the store’s dedication to utilizing the unique gifts and experiences of community members, such as in Emerson’s Joy in Difficult Times, to be an inspiration for others and to spread hope among the community.
“[Emerson] has given so much hope to so many people, and that’s what it’s all about. We’re in this together, to wrap our arms and hearts around others to help them grow and see that there’s light and good things, to not give up.”