I spent my youth developing my serious side. It might have been because of my father's family. They certainly took themselves seriously. They worked very hard to do everything exactly right, to be proper and acceptable. I remember Grandma telling me, "You don't just plop down in a chair; you back up to it, put one leg back, then gently lower yourself, like this...." They lived, spoke, and dressed as a fine family should. One aunt even pulled weeds wearing a dress, high heels, and jewelry. If I put my elbows on the table, laughed too loudly, or used bad grammar, I was quickly corrected.
I was also taught that one did not spend money frivolously. Aunt Helen, with whom my sister and I stayed every summer for seven years, had several variations on "A penny saved is a penny earned," which she used often and with absolute predictability.
"Save your money, kid," a phrase she spoke to adults as well as kids, was to warn you against spending money for something "unnecessary." She even showed us how much butter to put on a slice of bread: "You don't need to put it clear out to the edge!"
The family's thriftiness was not something born of necessity, or simply a good idea. It was more like a prerequisite for entering the kingdom of heaven. Here, limitation was a sought-after virtue, perhaps arising out of fear of something. Maybe fear of fun.
Now, I'm not criticizing these people, mind you. They were good people. They were generous with gifts, if not with the things you used every day. They just offered few surprises and didn't laugh much. They weren't spontaneous or playful. There wasn't much time for that. They were serious, hardworking. They had better things to do, among which were thinking about correctness, appearance, and manners. Not exactly mirth-producing. Though this way of life was all I knew, I suspected that there might be - should be - something more. Whether I can honestly put the blame on them, I don't know, but I just never learned to be funny.
I always appreciated humor, except when it came from three boys in my class who always laughed at my expense. (I could never see what was so funny.) Otherwise, I loved funny people. I married a funny man, enjoyed his funny friends. I delighted in my funny children when they competed for laughs. But the three times I tried, I couldn't tell a joke and get a chuckle.
Now things have changed in our family. Kids have moved out, some serious circumstances have arisen. I now know the leavening power of laughter; and it seems that if there is going to be much laughing in our home, I'm going to have to do my part.
I've tried various things. Not jokes. My joke-well dried up when I left the third-grade where everybody had a repertoire of them. (The same ones they are telling today.) Besides, that would probably draw more attention to my obvious deficiency and would only produce a groan.
I did try dancing. My daughter Mary, now 13, can't hear her tunes without shuffling, bopping, and gyrating. I tried doing that, emulating some of her movements while cooking supper or doing dishes. Evidently, I jerked some of the wrong body parts. "That's stupid!" she told me. "Mom, you're not funny!" (On the contrary, I've seen a video of me dancing the macarena at my daughter Ann's wedding, and I thought I was a scream! Watching others to see what the next motion was, I was always half a beat behind, playing catch-up with my hands the way an out-of-step marcher does a little skip-hop.)
Dancing didn't work. Singing didn't either. I could never quite figure out the words: "We are a part of the revelation." "Mom, it's 'We are a part of the rhythm nation'!"
I'VE tried looking silly (well, actually it wasn't always intentional). I often improvise gardening gear and objects of clothing when necessity demands that mother invent. I thought my kneepads made of plastic garbage bags and rubber bands, and my sweatband made of a red bandanna were quite comedic. They did make my husband smile.
Mary, however, was mortified.
"Moth-er!" she wailed as she rolled her eyes and stomped her foot.
I've tried calling her at mealtime with a dinner bell. Not funny. Responding with unconventional answers to her questions. "What's for supper?" "Fish-eye soup." Not funny. It's quite deflating to try to be amusing and fail. It would be so much easier to forget it.
Wasn't I satisfied for years being serious? I am much better at it. But something in me says keep trying....