WASHINGTON -- 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 -- 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 Hallmark-inspired “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?