Funny Gal

The first thing you learn when your mother has a twisted sense of humor? Comedy is not pretty.
Funny Gal
 MAY09 OMO imageMy younger brother David was born with a pronounced cone-shaped head. When we were kids, my mom explained that David’s skull was so misshaped at birth that the doctors had no choice but to perform a rare and risky total head transplant. Mom even had proof: A photo of David taken hours after his delivery. The photo was shot at an angle that brutally exaggerated his conehead, making it appear that it came to a nearly pencil-fine point. Mom was quick to explain away any doubt we kids had regarding, for instance, why there was no scar around David’s neck. “It’s underneath his skin,” she’d say—fast, confident, and straight-faced. “The procedure was quite revolutionary at the time.” Which is the way Mom typically responded to any questions regarding her dubious yarns. It worked, too. For a good five years or so of David’s childhood, Mom had him convinced that his head was not his, at least not part of the original model. Such were the challenges of growing up with a mother with a highly evolved sense of humor, and a twisted, multi-layered one at that.

This being the month we celebrate Mother’s Day, it seemed as good a time as any for a little tribute to my dear ol’ wisecracking Mom. The photo of David with his original, defective head wasn’t the only picture she kept within reach. She has this other snapshot of a woman she called her “sister.” Her name was Marmaluke. Her appearance was so disturbing that, given the choice, anyone would rather kiss Gary Busey. Or a horse. When I got a bit older, I realized the portrait of Marmaluke was actually a composite photograph combining this person’s nose with this person’s eyes with this person’s forehead, etc. A more hideous human being could not have been Frankensteined together.

When asked why we had never met this sister—we were certainly close to my mother’s other two siblings—Mom explained that Marmaluke left the family one night to protect them from embarrassment. “I hear from her about once a decade, and then only by postcard,” she said, totally po-faced. “She goes out only at night.” We bought the story for a while, even looking for Marmaluke’s hideous face whenever we passed strangers in the night, until we grew old enough to know better. Still, Mom was never the type to admit defeat. If I, her 45-year-old son, quizzed her about Marmaluke today, she would still try to convince me that it was true. “There’s a lot more to this story,” she would say, winking at my children, her grandchildren, keeping the tradition alive with another audience eager for wild tales and the chance to believe in them.  

Mom’s penchant for comedy wasn’t limited to telling fibs and concocting characters. Physical humor was also a part of her repertoire. Here’s one memorable example, which I’ve written about before; long-time readers (and you know who you are, Mom) can just nod and click their tongues in amazement.

When I was a kid, my dad suffered from mild, though chronic, back pain. Dad relied on several pain management techniques; sometimes he’d have us kids walk on his back, but often he’d turn to a special device that I am certain was not FDA approved. We referred to it simply as “the contraption.” The device worked like this: You sat on a chair in front of a closet door that was slightly ajar. You then placed a canvas strap around your head and under your chin. That strap was attached to a rope that ran up to a pulley that hung off of a bracket at the top of the open door. At the other end of the rope was a canvas sack, in which you placed a weight—a book or two, for instance—to apply “soothing pressure” to your spine.

One day when Dad was strapped into the contraption, he gave Mom some lighthearted grief about dinner not being quite ready. Without saying a word, Mom responded by dropping a bag of sugar into the sack, causing Dad’s head to snap backward and smack the door behind him. We kids cracked up, until Dad shot us his canvas-framed sneer, and then we pretended it wasn’t funny. Near Thanksgiving one year, a similar scene played out, but this time Mom jokingly (I think) threatened to toss a 25-pound frozen turkey into the sack. It would have popped Dad’s head right off his body.

Sometimes the physical humor was downright gross. I recall with some squeamishness the preparation I went through before my first school dance, which marked the end of my elementary education at St. William School in Price Hill before moving on to Elder High School. I had my first serious girlfriend, Mary Ann, but I didn’t have any idea whatsoever about how to slow dance. Those being the pre-Web days, I had no computer to turn to, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to ask my brothers or my dad. No, I needed womanly guidance, someone who could, in short order, turn me into Fred Astaire so that I could wow Mary Ann’s inner Ginger Rogers.

I was reluctant to ask my mom because I knew that was an invitation to be teased mercilessly. Mom loved to tease, which sometimes agitated me to the point of tears, like when she found some perfume-scented love letters from my fifth grade girlfriend that I had hidden in my room. For what seemed like a solid year, Mom would quote something juicy from one of the letters, such as “You have cute hair,” making it quite clear that she had read every word of every letter. Then she would blow kisses into the air. My brothers would snicker and I would storm out of the room, embarrassed and spiteful and eagerly awaiting the time when they would become the target of Mom’s teasing—which was something I seldom had to wait more than a few days for.

But my graduation dance was too important to botch. After carefully reviewing the options, I realized my only choice was to go to my mother for instruction, ego-crushing risks be damned. The dance was just hours away. Mom was listening to music on the radio while she ironed. I approached, gulped hard, and asked if she would show me how to slow dance. To my great relief, she didn’t give me a hard time. Perhaps, I thought to myself, Mom understood the magnitude of this dance in my life. It had first-kiss potential written all over it.

Mom sat her iron down and turned up the radio, tuned, as always, to the Top 40 on WSAI-AM. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was playing.

“Put yours hands here, like this,” she said, placing my hands on her hips. She then put her hands around my skinny neck. “Your dance partner will put her hands here, like this, and then you’ll sway to the music, moving your hips like this and your feet like this.”

We danced like that for about 10 seconds, and I was beginning to think how glad I was that I had reached out to Mom for help. Then she blew softly in my ear. No girl had ever done that to me, but I knew its significance and I found the idea of my Mom acting like a girlfriend totally revolting. I stormed off, Mom chuckling and blowing more of those damn air kisses. At the dance there was no first kiss for me, just yours truly dancing like a drunk, arthritic monkey with no sense of rhythm. For months I blamed my “funny” Mom.

MOM ALSO KNEW how to perform on stages outside our home. She got a big kick out of driving through fast food restaurants in her beige Volkswagen bug with us kids in the car—not to order anything, just to have a chat with the unwitting person on the other end of the intercom.

“Can I help you?” the attendant would say.

“No, just wondering how you’re doing today,” Mom would say.

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Thanks for asking, I’m great. Anything new?”

“All kinds of stuff, but what would you like to order?”

“More than anything, I would love to hear about your family.”

Mom would keep the dialogue going until the person stopped responding, the cars behind us started beeping, or the manager came out shaking his fist, at which point Mom would cave and order a round of Cokes.

Growing up with a comic mother who could take a joke as well as she delivered one taught me that the social contract of humor is built on a foundation of give-and-take. You tell me a funny story about your college roommate, and I share one about my Uncle Ralph. You tease me for my dorky-looking hat and I tease you for wearing argyle socks with gym shoes. For Mom, your right to tell jokes came in direct proportion to your willingness to be on the receiving end of them. Mom is paying a price now for having schooled us in this way; actually, it’s been payback time for the better part of the last 20 years. So far my oldest brother, Larry, holds the trophy for most creatively punking mom.

Larry and his family lived for several years in Rhode Island. One day he called Mom and told her that he was on his computer using Google Maps. He raved about the free service, explaining to Mom, who is computer-literate, how he was using his computer to control a satellite orbiting Earth in order to home in on any geographical landmark in real time. In fact, he had mom’s house in his sights right there on his screen! Larry asked Mom to step outside and wave. She stepped on to her front porch, looked skyward and waved with one hand, while holding the phone with the other.

“I can see you,” Larry said. “You’re wearing a red sweater!”

“That’s right,” Mom said. “Oh, my God!” She waved even harder.

“You’re facing the wrong way,” Larry said, prompting Mom to turn 180 degrees. “Do a little jig or something.”

Caught up in the excitement of it all, Mom began to shuffle her feet.

“Faster,” Larry said. Mom picked up the pace.

“Now, look up the street,” Larry said.

Mom looked, only to see Larry sitting in his car just a few doors up. He had paid a surprise visit. Google Earth is marvelous but it’s not that marvelous.

Mom, to her credit, laughed at the whole episode. Even now, a few years later, she repeats the story to those who haven’t heard it, laughing at her own expense. And that, she seems to say, is the best laughter of all.

Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the May 2009 issue.

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