The gift of laugh­ter and a fa­ther’s legacy

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

My fa­ther died with a smile on his face. But, of course, he would. A few days ear­lier, as his wife, my sis­ter and I gath­ered around his bed in the in­ten­sive care unit, I said, “I’ll bet he’s think­ing right now, ‘I wish these broads would go away and leave me alone.’”

Im­me­di­ately, his face creased into his Hol­ly­wood smile and he chuck­led as though he were wide awake — and I had hit the mark. I al­ways knew what he was think­ing.

We had a shared sense of hu­mor through years of joy­ful and griev­ous times. I’m not sure how hu­mor gets passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. Is it genetic or learned, or both? What­ever the ex­pla­na­tion, all three of us kids got it from our fa­ther to vary­ing de­grees. Since this is my col­umn, I’ll say that mine is most like his, but his was like no one else’s.

He wasn’t so much a joker as he was a sly wit who could crack up a room with a barely per­cep­ti­ble ad­just­ment to his ex­pres­sion. Once he, my then-boyfriend, “Gala­had,” and I were hav­ing din­ner at the kitchen ta­ble when the boyfriend’s knife be­gan mak­ing scrap­ing sounds against his plate. Just as I glanced side­wise to­ward the source of this skin-crawl­ing af­front, I caught my fa­ther’s eye and we both ex­ploded in laugh­ter — not only at the per­sis­tent scrap­ing but at the con­ver­gence of our mu­tual ob­ser­va­tion.

Poor Gala­had. He looked up from his plate with­out a clue, and Pop­sie and I both said, aw, it was noth­ing. And it was noth­ing. But it was a deal-breaker for un­spo­ken rea­sons. Gala­had had missed the beat, and there was no quicker path to an exit in our house. My fam­ily and I of­ten re­marked that it would be dif­fi­cult for most any­one to wan­der dis­armed into our den of relentless hu­mor. With­out a quick mind and a ready draw, you were toast.

We sim­ply loved to tell sto­ries, to fry the giz­zard, to laugh un­til it hurt. The fa­ther-daugh­ter com­edy was rel­a­tively be­nign, but add my older brother to the mix, and we be­came lethal. Hu­mor is a form of ag­gres­sion, af­ter all, but we were mean with­out mal­ice. If it ap­peared that our quips were be­com­ing more hurt­ful than clever, our fa­ther would take a deep drag from his cig­a­rette and, with a slight pucker of dis­ap­proval, be­gin wip­ing the coun­ter­tops. This was our sig­nal to hit pause and visit the loo, straighten the pic­tures on the wall or freshen our bev­er­age.

These kitchen rit­u­als evolved over time and changed as we ma­tured. But at the heart of our fa­mil­ial rou­tines was the tragedy of our mother’s death. Her heart stopped af­ter just 31 years, a legacy of rheumatic fever, leav­ing my brother, 6, and me, 3, to invent a moth­er­less life with her wi­d­ower, also 31. (My sis­ter came later.) When life deals you an early blow, the choice is clear: You ei­ther drown in sor­row or crack a joke. If we were heart­bro­ken and lost, we kept our suf­fer­ing to our­selves. The main stage of home life de­manded our com­plic­ity in the great­est com­edy of all.

“What’s it all about, Pop­sie?” I’d ask him. Word­lessly, wear­ing an ex­pres­sion that said, “It’s a joke,” he’d point to­ward the heav­ens and the au­thor of all things. As fre­quently re­hearsed, I’d smile, reck­on­ing he was prob­a­bly right but re­mem­ber­ing other times when we’d walk by the lake at sun­set. “How could any­body see that and think there is no God?” he’d ask.

Com­pli­cated doesn’t be­gin to de­scribe my enig­matic fa­ther, a lawyer who was some­times the gen­tlest and kindest man I’d ever known. He could talk to any­one and make him or her his in­stant friend. He was also the tough­est, most de­mand­ing dis­ci­plinar­ian, as well as the wis­est, smartest, most ar­tic­u­late per­son I’ve yet en­coun­tered. At 14, he won the Illi­nois state or­a­tor­i­cal con­test, which I men­tion as a marker for his ex­pec­ta­tions.

Chores, yes; TV, no. The only ex­emp­tion from phys­i­cal la­bor was reading a book. He or­ga­nized neigh­bor­hood games, helped us build tree­houses and dig bunkers. He stressed good sports­man­ship, hu­mil­ity and re­silience, and he for­bade pout­ing, self-pity or laments of bore­dom — even when we had to watch “Meet the Press” and “Fir­ing Line.”

Not one to sub­mit to group­think (his door­mat said “Go Away”) or Hall­markin­spired “spe­cial” days, my fa­ther didn’t care much for Fa­ther’s Day, pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion or sen­ti­men­tal­ity. But, again, this is my col­umn, so thanks for the laughs, Pop­sie.

And the joke about life be­ing a joke was a joke, right?


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