I meet with a small group of writers a couple of times a month and we write for a few minutes, prompted by a phrase someone produces off the top of their head. Last week, one of my fellow writers observed—after months of writing together–that she hadn’t realized I had a sense of humor.
This may not amaze readers of these blogs. Clearly I tend to be more “philosophic” than humorous and light-hearted.
The spectrum of what we call humorous includes everything from mean-spirited laughter that mocks anyone different from us to hilarious send-ups of our own foibles. Mockery reflects back onto the one mocking, but humor can also illuminate where we are stuck and how we feel about ourselves.
Many years ago, my sister and I spent a week going through the contents of our childhood home in Montreal, after it had finally become clear that our mother could no longer live there alone. We had set ourselves the task of dividing up her furnishings and possessions into three piles. Our plan was to launch each item along one of three trajectories:
1/ things to follow her into her new phase of life,
2/ things to be disposed of in a gigantic yard sale, and
3/ things that a generous neighbor had agree to store in case our mother could once more set up house again–somewhere, sometime.
Time and Space must have had to suppress a smile, while watching this process over several days.
One of us would hold up an item—for instance a copy of “Learn Spanish in Six Weeks”—for consideration. Should this book follow her to British Columbia? Should it go straight to the yard sale (where perhaps someone more mentally agile might find it useful)? Or should we save it in the neighbor’s basement for a time when our mother’s mind would recover and all those self-improvement urges—which she had found it difficult to carry out even in her prime—would have a runway cleared for take-off.
We would sometimes pause and look at one another for a few moments, then break into hysterical laughter.
I think that humor helped us to accept the need for change, a reality I had been ignoring for years. I knew that the kind-hearted couple across the street, who called her “Aunt Betty”, was a vital support, but I hadn’t been aware that Mom no longer shopped or cooked for herself. I knew that “Aunt Katie”, her sister, who lived 80 miles north of Montreal, looked out for her, but I didn’t know that she came down every week to do her laundry.
It was clearly past time to sell the house and move Mom to an environment that could help her with “activities of daily living”. But somehow her two adult children still found it necessary to invent a fictitious category between what she would take and what would be cast overboard. It was as if, while a fireman at the top of a ladder is shouting to get out immediately before the leaky gas mains explode, you pause to straighten the pillows on the couch.
My sister and I must have known that we were acting out a fiction, but we must have needed it to go through the houseful of stuff we had grown up with and which represented decades of our family’s lives. However, perhaps in our gales of laughter, we were able to read between the lines of our story.
I think our mother would have laughed along with us, even though a few years later I discovered that she seemed unable to keep more than two things in mind at one time. When she visited me in Albuquerque, in her final year of life, I couldn’t get her to recognize that she had left Vancouver in the morning, transferred–with help from a friend–in LAX, before arriving in Albuquerque later that day. For her there was only the leaving and the arriving. Nothing in between could stick in her mind.
I think she would have joined in our laughter, fully appreciating the absurdity of trying to store things for a time that would never come. In fact, she fully appreciated, long before I did, that there is nothing beyond this present moment, and whatever it means to us right now.