All My Ancestors

9 March 2008

AnceStories: Laughter, the Best Medicine

Miriam’s most recent journaling prompt asks us to think about who and how humor works in our families.

This is a topic I should be an expert on. I wrote a dissertation on humor. The main thing I learned was that the dissection of humor is the only operation in which the patient ALWAYS dies. (That’s not original with me, by the way, but I can’t remember–or find–the source right now.) It seemed like a good idea at the time, but anyone who’s done that sort of sustained, intense project, soon realizes that there’s nothing funny about it, no matter the topic.

We laughed a lot in our family–it seemed to be a point of pride to get others to laugh, in fact. Not that we were/are all clowns, but we do appreciate a good turn of phrase. My husband is from a family that laughs as well. And he’s the youngest, so he’s the performer, as is our youngest son. Our older son and I tend to be the “critics,” though that’s typically phrased humorously as well.

*When you laugh, who do you sound like? Your father, mother, a sibling, or other relative?
I don’t know who I sound like. I suspect I sound like my mother–everything else has gotten to be like her as I’ve aged–my hands, my skin, my looks. I know I don’t sound like my siblings–one brother sort of grins and giggles and the other laughs a bit louder than him, but we don’t sound alike, though we can enjoy some of the same things to laugh at.

*Who in your family giggles? Belly laughs? Chuckles? Guffaws? Knee slaps or does some other large physical act while laughing?
My grandad used to slap his knee sometimes when he was laughing, particularly if it was something he thought you should be laughing at also. The only person I can think of who giggles is a most unlikely candidate–he’s a cousin who is a big, tough, (at least in his youth) cowboy. I couldn’t help joining in the fun when Willie giggled. My brother laughs a bit like him though he would probably clobber me if I said he giggles. :-)

*Who has the most unique laugh in your family, and why
In my immediate family, our youngest son has the most unique laugh–it just sort of bursts out and is there before you know it’s coming.

*What kinds of things did your family laugh or joke about?
All sorts of things, including each other.

There’s also a tradition of telling stories about serious events but using a humorous twist. I wish I had a recording, for example, of my cousin’s tale about setting his house of fire right before Christmas. His daughter was getting married and his dad, who had cancer, was there. It reminded me of Ogden Nash’s tale of “The Night the Bed Fell.” The event wasn’t funny but the telling was hilarious–all the things going through his mind, his dad, my incorrigible uncle, facing off the official who wanted to replace his meds from the fire-damaged pouch, the interaction with the firemen–not funny, but hilarious in the telling. My husband has a few of those types of stories as well–the first wedding he performed had a bomb threat called in AND a tornado siren go off during the service. They had to evacuate the church twice, in pouring rain. You can imagine what the wedding pictures look like from that one!

*What best describes the style of humor in your family (dry, wet, ironic, silly)?
I’d say it is ironic and even sometimes sarcastic. It’s not mean-spirited but it does have an edge.

There’s some silliness, as well. My dad lived with us for a couple of years after my mom died. His stroke and aging made him all the more susceptible to my sons’ silliness–and they loved having the audience. He loved the antics of the pets as well–he chuckled when he told me about the dog stealing his sandwich off the counter while his back was turned as he was putting the sandwich makings back into the fridge. And then there was the time the hot air balloon came over the back yard and scared the dog.

*Did you ever have tickle fights?
Maybe one. At least with me. Because I probably beaned whoever tried. I always thought they were sort of mean–probably because I was on the receiving end as a child. And maybe it wasn’t all that much of a fight–I was just being tickled and I didn’t like it.

*Who were the practical jokers in the family?
My brothers were practical jokers when we were younger–I was probably a really good target. Once they left jelly beans on their bed that they knew I would eat. They’d made sure our dog had licked them first.

I’ve been known to pull a few myself–I used to tell my youngest brother that chocolate milk came from black Angus cattle–I suppose this is sort of a region-specific joke. Back in that time and place, Herefords were the most common and desired brand.

And I told my husband-to-be at the time that we didn’t sing our school song, we whistled it. He made the mistake of checking with my parents and then he married me anyway.

*What private jokes did you have as a family? What key phrases were giggle starters?
One of the things that can send us into gales of laughter is the mention of hearing aids, or talking about not being able to hear. Our grandad got progressively more and more hard of hearing as he aged. We were all gathered in my parents’ family room, and Grandad kept having us, or more likely, Grannie, repeat to him what was being said. My younger brother, the shrink-in-training at the time, said, “Grandad, have you ever thought about getting hearing aids?” To which Grandad roared, “An airplane! What do I need an airplane for?”

*What do you remember about your own children’s first laughs when they were babies? What silly things did you do to get them to chortle?
Almost anything could send son #1 into a fit of the giggles–getting down close into his face or rolling him around a bit or just talking silly. Son #2 was a tougher audience, but usually with some patience, he would laugh at the same things.

*What books, magazine, or cartoon strips were favorite humorous reads in your family?
We always read “the funnies,” in both the daily paper and the Sunday comics. My dad liked “Dennis the Menace,” “Alley Oop,” and “Nancy,” as I recall. My own sons like reading “Calvin and Hobbes” and it’s probably pretty telling that #1 son loved (and understood) Matt Groenig’s “Life in Hell” at a very early age. They both, along with their dad, like to watch “The Simpsons.” And they love to make fun of me because I don’t like watching it.

*What comedy television shows or movies were favorites in your family?
As I’ve said before, we didn’t have television when we were kids. But sometimes we got to go over to Aunt Eva’s and watch cartoons. I think I enjoyed more watching my brother giggle at Huckleberry Hound than I did watching them myself. Later, my aunt kept my oldest son when he was a little one, and she introduced him to Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther. He does a great Guy Gadbois to this day. My grandad loved Red Skelton–again, it was as much fun to watch him as it was to watch the show.

*Do you ever play games that get your family giggling up a storm?
Password, when played in a multi-generational setting, nearly always set us off into laughter. My grandad, no matter how hard he tried, just couldn’t keep his salty language under control during the pressure of the game, which, of course, sent us kids into gales of laughter–our mother, his daughter, was not so amused. We would practically wet our pants when he and my dad, his son-in-law, were paired up and trying to get the other one to say the magic word. And my grandmother would throw salt at my husband and walk backwards around his chair when she thought he was winning at cards too much. All cause for lots of laughing.

*Do you have digital recordings, videotapes, audio tapes, or home movies with family members talking or laughing in them? I’m a fan of Susan Kitchen’s blog, Family Oral History Using Digital Tools, and she has lots of good tips for preserving these recordings. Perhaps you should plan to do some recording at the next family gathering!
I wish I did have recordings of some of those card games and games of Password. So maybe it’s time to use my digital recorder at the next family gathering. I will say that one of the favorite recordings that makes people laugh in my family is the an old movie of me, at about age 3, gagging myself repeatedly while cleaning my sunglasses. I’m decked out in my two-piece sun suit, and just can’t seem to get those glasses smear-free.

*Besides preserving audio recordings (and perhaps posting them on your blog!), you can post photos of family members cutting capers, laughing, or joking around.
I have done some of this. My grandmother’s 4 sisters astride the horse at Knott’s Berry Farm is a good example. I think the Anderton’s always had a good time when they got together. My grandmother was not rambunctious, but she did like to laugh and make others laugh.

This was a fun reminiscence. I’m glad to be a part of a family that laughs–some of those times and the shared experiences make our lives all the richer. They give us a bond with family members who are no longer around but who can still make us smile when we remember some of our times laughing together. And the stories repeated give other family members information about those they may not have known first-hand. I’m so glad my great-aunt Edna told me the story about “fur-bearing Christians,” for example. I can still see the twinkle in her eye when she told me that tale.

And I remember going to sleep with a smile on Christmas’ Eve because from the living room, I could hear my two adult sons doing what can only be described as giggling as they were playing “Guitar Hero.”

1 Comment »

One Response to “AnceStories: Laughter, the Best Medicine”

  1. Sorry to say, but your laugh sounds nearly exactly like your mother’s….and your great-aunt’s, too. There must be a cultural or genetic component to it as I’ve never seen or heard anything like it elsewhere.

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