Back in the day, my father liked to introduce my sister and me as the smart one and the pretty one. He never said who was which. My sister and I argued about it for decades. Neither of us wants to be the smart one.
My father was a natural comedian whose favorite form of humor was anything that mortified his children. He’d play with words, or toss ethnic (Jewish) jokes and cringe humor into conversations for the sole purpose of embarrassing me. Dark comedy and gallows humor was his particular favorite. A few hours before he passed away from cancer in the hospital he still made wisecracks and told my sister to “go to the nurse’s station and find out what time people die around here.” I’m certain my insurance salesman father missed his calling.
Comedy is important in our family. Our personal currency increases when we make each other laugh. My brother is great at physical humor, my three nieces are sarcastic and ironic to perfection. My nephews make clever observational humor, and my kids crack me up on a daily basis without even trying. We don’t make jokes that are mean spirited or insulting. Nobody gets their feelings hurt or is put on the defensive. We are mostly self-deprecating or point out daily absurdities. I think it takes a certain amount of intelligence and self-esteem to be funny, and the ability to slip into the third person. Plus we are excellent laughers. I absolutely love being around my siblings and their families.
My mother wasn’t funny, though. At least I don’t remember her that way. She rarely cracked jokes or found things ironic. She was beautiful, so her personal currency was her looks and assertiveness. But, boy oh boy, could my father make her laugh. She burst out a belly laugh if my father tripped, she smiled and rolled her eyes at his corny puns, but the best part was he could make her laugh when she didn’t want to. One time, my mother was arrested (for disrespecting an officer and then resisting arrest, which she totally did) and my father went to the station to get her. He approached the cell, and with the protection of her behind bars said, “Again, Elaine?” (He would never have said this if she was within swinging range.) Only my dad could come up with a punchline this brilliant at a moment like this. My mother couldn’t help but laugh.
My father was lean and fit from years of doing his own yard work. His eyes reflected his mischievousness. He seemed like he was up to something. He exuded cool. But he wasn’t classically handsome. He looked like Larry Fine when The Stooge wasn’t in character, or maybe a version of Bob Uecker. He’d say about himself, “If you’re going to have a nose, it should be a big one.” When I was a teenager I didn’t understand why my mother, who looked like Natalie Wood and could have married anyone, chose my dad.
She said my father was the nicest and funniest man she ever met. Nice and funny — two qualities that are very underrated. People look for wealthy, handsome or successful. Nice and funny usually lands someone in the friend zone, and oddly it was my mom who wound up spending time there. Growing up, my dad was best friends with her older brother and my mom was the annoying younger sister who hung around them. He didn’t pay her much attention until he returned from WW2 and realized she had grown up. He continued to hang around the house, but with the purpose of making my mother laugh. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love.
I love this story because it reminds me that my parents had no pretense about one another when they got married. They knew each other well, and loved one another for their heart and not their surface. Their marriage lasted ’till death did them part — not that my parents didn’t fight — they did, but they fought with the passion and security of two people who knew they would never separate.
Which is the same way I fight with my husband.
Had my parents ever met my husband, a comedy writer who worked in film and television and now teaches at a large university, I’m pretty sure my dad would have liked him. My mom, on the other hand, would have been slow to warm up since he’s from a different ethnic background (not Jewish, but she’d eventually realize he’s “Jewish on the inside,” as I sometimes describe him).
But here’s the important thing — every day my husband makes me laugh, even on days I don’t want to, or when I’m so angry that I can’t stand him. Also, he laughs at my jokes, and when he does I feel appreciated and understood. In these moments, I remember I married a man who truly “gets” me.
I wound up marrying the nicest and funniest man I ever met, but (thankfully) looks nothing like Larry Fine.
I guess that makes me the smart one.