Personally Speaking/Wise Women, Funny Women

Years ago, a student said to me, “You know what I love about you? It’s how funny you think you are!” She wasn’t wrong! I think I’m pretty funny and often enough I can at least amuse myself. “You could be a stand-up comic,” I’ve occasionally been told after presenting a workshop or giving a talk. I mostly receive that as a compliment though sometimes it does leave me asking if the more serious content I was attempting to convey also got through. But I recognize that when I was younger, I sometimes held back, worrying that my sense of humor might make me appear light, someone who didn’t need to be taken seriously. I had not yet fully understood the power and possibility humor holds.

But if there’s one thing I learned from the trinity of women in whose generative shadows I became the person I am, it’s that wise women can stand up and step up in part because they know when to laugh.

My paternal grandmother, Hildegard, was intelligent, hardworking, and a hostess par excellence. Among the treats she graciously provided were sugar cubes stocked in a brass-lidded dish. Perhaps they were intended for coffee. But we grandchildren routinely lifted the lid of the dish to access gems of melt-on-your-tongue sweetness. Grandma was known for her playful rhymes and riddles. “As I was walking down the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Gee, I wish he’d go away!” Of all the things Grandma would say that made me smile or laugh outright, my favorite was her playful barb delivered to Grandpa whenever he stepped out of line: “Miss on you, pister!”

My maternal grandmother, Helen, was of small stature and great spirit. Less a jokester than Hilde, she would make us laugh with her sheer feistiness. She was the most ruthless croquet player in the family and no grandchild was spared when she got the chance. With a slight smile, she would whack their ball as far out of play as possible. “Grandma,” we would plead, “Don’t you know that when your ball rolls into ours you have the option of taking another stroke instead?” The twinkle in her eye betrayed the fact that she knew; she definitely knew! At cards Grandma would fake sweet-old-lady confusion, sucking you in until you realized she understood all along. By then you were left in the dust. And when you asked about parts of her life story – her experiences as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, or the day she went home from a dance with the man she would marry, even though she had gone there with someone else! – there was regularly the sparkle of delight and surprise in her stories.

Marcia, my mother, had Helen’s feistiness and a good dose of Hilde’s humor. In my early teen years, there was one particular night when our family of six was more than a bit raucous at the dinner table and our dad just wasn’t having it. I want to be clear that Dad was and is a patient, loving man. On the night in question, who knows? Maybe he’d had a bad day at work; children are blissfully ignorant of the weighty matters their parents carry. At any rate, the family was whooping it up at the table – talking over one another and laughing uproariously – when Dad slammed his fist down and declared, “The next person who can’t control their laughter should leave the table!” Stunned silence. Sideways glances. Then Mom wordlessly pushed her chair back from the table and left the room. Dad cracked a smile, then a small laugh escaped his lips. Mom returned in full belly laugh, and we all exhaled and joined in.

In my mid-twenties, there was a time when Mom and I got to the family cottage a day before the rest of the family, and we drank wine and talked and laughed until we cried. My mom left us too soon, when a ruptured brain aneurysm took her life in her 60th year. If I could have Mom back for one night, I’d choose that same setting, and we would talk about everything and nothing and laugh together. We’d laugh until we were a spent puddle, rejuvenated by perspective regained and joy recollected.

My grandmothers and mother showed me the power of humor. Humor challenges, and sometimes heals. It offers perspective. A good sense of humor requires the ability to discern whether something is small or large. Big things deserve big attention, but so many times we encounter small things pretending to be big – and they deserve to be called out by the town crier who lets us know when the emperor is in the buff. Humor makes space for joy and delight. It gives us the power to stand tall and boldly share ourselves with the world.

July 1, 2019