Whisper the word “Shakespeare” in my dad’s ear. He transforms. Bristly white eyebrows perk up. His 79 year-old eyes widen, brighten, and sparkle. He speaks:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…
Words pour out like water from a moon-sized pitcher. You’d be adrift in a small sea if you did not interrupt him. Dad can quote poetry endlessly.
My father’s skill as an orator was overlooked until he enlisted in the Army. Stationed in Alaska during the Korean War, his encyclopedic recall of risqué limericks entertained lonely and bored fellow soldiers.
Dad’s Uncle Doc inspired his love for theater. Doc had a similarly profound memory. He made his living astounding vaudeville audiences with his wit and mnemonic feats.
A few weeks ago, Tyoma showed an interest in knock-knock jokes. I remembered Dad and Uncle Doc. “Perhaps T can use his fantastic memory to dazzle his friends with jokes!” I thought. I imagined a circle of laughing six-year olds, holding their little bellies, relishing T’s talent. In a burst of enthusiasm, I carted home the local library’s collection of jokes and riddles.
It was not until Tyoma read jokes aloud to me that I recalled my childhood romance with jokes.
In the third grade, I became the butt of jokes and teasing for being a “spazz.” After a particularly hard week at school, I came home to find Mom had raided our favorite used book store. Stacks of paperback joke books covered my bed. Cheap, faded, and stained, their sharp grassy smell permeated my room. I breathed in the scent and felt unburdened.
I dove into the books joyfully. Convulsive and tearful fits of laughter squeezed my sides all weekend. I have never been so painfully amused! My favorite book, a psychedelic purple and orange elephant joke book, delighted me–absurdity at its finest. I read and re-read the books.
It never occurred to me to share my jokes with my classmates.
Actually, the joke books were part of Mom’s secret plan. My school yard harassment was started by a popular boy who had taken a dislike to me. His teasing infected the other students. After a weekend immersion in jokes, Mom made a suggestion. I could take control of the teasing by telling my own jokes. My jokes would amuse others without hurting anyone’s feelings.
I skipped to school fifteen minutes early. I told joke after joke. Despite getting a few laughs, I had the sinking sensation that something was not right. Only now, I realize my presentation was more Ringling Brothers than Robin Williams—my twitchy anxiety made me weird, not funny.
The bully boy listened in at the edge of the small group. He took note of my jokes. Later in the day, he retold the best ones in front of a larger, more appreciative audience. He told a joke and kids laughed. I told a joke and kids scuffed their feet.
I was annoyed that this boorish lout got accolades for my jokes. But, he never picked on me again and the other kids left me in peace. Mission accomplished. My love for joke books persisted, undaunted. I did learn, however, to keep my fascinations more private. Who wants to fuel an irritating peer’s glory or fret over unappreciative classmates?
Contemplating my experiences, I decided to let T’s love for jokes follow their own course. He might run a grade school vaudeville show or he might laugh for hours in his room. Either way, I’m taking a step back to let him find his place. Jokes are about feeling good.