Speaking of awkward compliments, I sort of got one at the reading I did last week at White Birch Books in New Hampshire: “Have you always had such a wonderful sense of humor?” That’s almost too complimentary! How can you answer that in a modest fashion? “Why, yes, and I’ve always been terribly good-looking, too.”
I thanked the woman who asked it, of course, and then said, in essence, yes I have.
I come from funny people.
My parents were funny, and communicated the value of funny to me, in the way some other families are musical, or athletic, or intellectual, or political. I don’t think they did this consciously–I’ll be real interested to hear what the ConductMom has to say about this post, online or off–but they certainly held humor in esteem not just as a random good thing, but as an important good thing.
I remember the day it occurred to me, around age seven, that my mother was funnier than most people. We were living in Oklahoma at the time, and I was taking horseback-riding lessons at a local farm. There were goats at the farm, too, and I vividly recall my New-York-born-and-bred mother’s mingled amusement and horror at being told, “Don’t park under the trees or the goats will climb on your car to eat the leaves.” This wasn’t something she’d ever had to worry about in Queens.
One day, I asked her, “Why do goats have scabby knees?”
“They pray a lot,” she replied. After a perfect beat, she added, “If you were that ugly, you would, too.”
I suddenly realized two things: one, that not everybody’s mother would have said that, and two, that not everybody would joke so irreverently about something that they took, at heart, very seriously. (Prayer, that is. I don’t think anyone from New York City can truly learn to take goats seriously.)
Growing up, my parents and I used humor as a way of bonding, of dealing with our stresses, and perhaps most importantly, as a way of breaking out of the roles of Mom and Dad and Kid, or of Good Midwestern Christians, or whatever. We valued those roles, but somehow also knew it was important to subvert them, to create a place we could just be Nancy and Jack and Robin together. We did humor in a lot of different ways: my father of blessed memory was more the Borscht-Belt kind of old-school joke teller, and also liked to make observations about the oddities of the English language. My mother and I were not above physical slapstick, but were mostly fast and quippy–my mother, in particular, had a remarkable facility for sick jokes, a side of her that I was one of the few people to see. We bonded over “The Carol Burnett Show” and “M*A*S*H” and, especially for my dad and me, “Take the Money and Run,” which we must have watched a dozen times together.
We had a lot of private jokes as a family (“checking the map,” “now I’m a vidow”). Humor was part of our culture. It’s not as though my father ever took me aside and said, “Daughter, humor can bridge social gaps and help overcome psychological defenses, and I want you to think about that,” or that my mother was some kind of godawful Comedy Mom (“Go to your room, young lady, and don’t come out until you’ve written ten witty observations on the difference between dogs and cats!”). But somehow, I knew that being funny was an important part of who they were, and an important part of who we were, as a family.
I can’t even begin to speculate on why my parents were like that. Neither of them were close to their extended families, so I don’t know how far or wide in the family tree the funny blossoms bloom. Through Facebook, I’ve recently become friends with a passel of cousins on my mother’s side, and although I have certain differences with them (I rather decisively did not remain a Good Midwestern Christian) we all share a love of a good laugh. My cousins write some of the funniest updates and comments I get on Facebook, which considering that many of my friends are professional writers and/or performers is going some.
What activities or qualities were particularly important to your family of origin? How were those values communicated? Do you think your parents valued those things consciously, in a way they could explain, or is it simply something deep within them that you picked up on?