Number one of the trilogy of the current granddaughter series, Julia, hove in t'other day, and we bade her welcome in the customary fashion. She enlightened us on affairs of her generation, which are certainly in good shape or cause for alarm. During the course of this joyful confrontation, Julia had to spoil the general levity by saying, "Grumpa, what was that funny story you used to tell us about a flight of stairs and a horse?"
I submit, with great gravity and extreme despair, that any funny story now on the brink of recollection isn't going to be funny by the time it is caught, subdued, and stood up in public. Julia, pretty though she may be, has just made the ultimate error in the realm of humorous communications: namely, there is nothing funny about anything offered as funny. There is nothing more dreary than a Joe Miller book of jokes.
I have seen one. Doc Rockwell, the vaudeville comedian of so long ago whose act was to display a banana stock and lecture on the human spine, had the professionals' encyclopedia of humor. The jokes were lined up in categories alphabetically, and it looked like a collection of Manhattan telephone directories. If Doc wanted a joke about wood-chopping, the collection gave him every wood-chopping "gag" known, and how each comedian used it from Plautus down to Groucho Marx. The whole collection was as unfunny as a box of horseshoe nails. Doc told me once that the word "meat" is not funny, but "beefsteak" is. He didn't know why, but it is:
"Our dog doesn't eat beefsteak."
"Your dog doesn't eat beefsteak?"
"No, our dog doesn't eat beefsteak."
"Why doesn't your dog eat beefsteak?"
"We don't give him any."
Doc claimed that if you said "meat," you wouldn't get a laugh on the entire B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit.
I told Julia I was sorry but I had no recollection of the pleasantry she referred to. Gammie, who is an associate of Grumpa, helped things along by speaking offhand about the punch line. The punch line is able assistance in this kind of recollection, but it does enfeeble the effect, and is terribly difficult to work back from to a hilarious finish. "Well, I said 'kiddelies,' diddle I?" is a poor place to start.
Our visit with Julia was not barren. It was the staircase and the horse that made me remember. Back when I was a baby and do not remember it, my father bought a small cottage house in a Boston suburb, Medford. The place had a double house lot, so he could have a garden. And the lot that obliged the house included a small barn out back where he could have a few hens. This barn, hardly more than a shed, had a loft, but my father didn't bother to get a ladder and explore it. He first went up there a month or more after he bought the place.
He found a few relics of no great value, but shoved back under the eaves was a three-piece parlor set in black walnut: two chairs and a settee. It was in poor condition, having been up there a long time, and the upholstery, with horse-hair covering, was in dusty tatters, as if a pussycat had clawed at it. Horsehair was, if anybody remembers, a desired item in Victorian days, and a parlor or sitting room with horsehair furniture was elegant indeed. My father told my mother what he had found.
He explained to her that the upholstery was indeed kaput, but the beautiful black walnut with its scrolls and flutings was in perfect condition. As soon as he could scrape together enough money, he'd have the set repaired, and we'd have as fine a parlor then as anybody in wealthy Brookline. This, so far, is the very funny yarn sweet Julia couldn't quite recall, and you can see readily why she did connect with horse and stairs.
My mother said she'd rather have a good fabric than all the horsehair in society, and that if my father thought she was going to climb a ladder to look at a beat-up sofa, he had another think coming. My father did walk up to Medford Square and found a repairman who would reupholster. Even though the price was peanuts then to nowadays, it was also a goodly sum to find then, and it was time before Dad got the spare cash and the man found a fabric that my mother approved. Then it was time to get the three items down from the high loft in the little barn.
PRESUMABLY I was settled in my cradle or crib and played no part. My father climbed a ladder (the only way to gain the loft) and drew the ladder up to make the trapdoor fully available. He had stripped the padding and horsehair so all he had were black- walnut frames. And these he lowered carefully until my mother, reaching up, could take them and set them down gently on the barn floor.
Black walnut is a fairly heavy wood, and in after years Mother would say she had little more than enough muscle to keep them from falling. And my father was concerned that the settee might get out of control and bounce on her. But the entire operation was successful, and the black-walnut set was ready to be trundled in a wheelbarrow (tied on!) for transport to Medford Square.
The renewed set was beautiful and was my Mother's lovely pride and joy. It was an antique possession everybody admired, and graced her living room until she was approaching her centenary and didn't have one anymore. It is - you betcha! - still in the family.
When somebody, as somebody was always doing, asked if the beautiful walnut set was a family heirloom, my father would nod. "Yes," he would say. "It was handed down to my wife."
That's what Julia couldn't remember.