My dad is an hour late when he shows up at my house.
"I can't believe the traffic!" he says, as he takes off his coat. "There I was, stuck behind a huge mattahue. What a nerve-wracking experience."
He follows me into the kitchen and accepts a ginger ale.
"I'm sorry the drive over was so hard," I say. "By the way, what's a 'mattahue'?"
"I don't know. What's a-matta you?"
If restaurants were divided into joking or nonjoking sections, I know where my father would sit.
As a child, I did not appreciate his persistent sense of humor. He lay in wait for me every morning. Wearing a respectable gray suit and reading the newspaper, he looked like an ordinary adult.
I knew better.
"Want a bagel?" he asked once, as I dragged in.
I analyzed the question, wary that a joke lurked in it. "OK," I answered. I'd learned that one-word replies made me less vulnerable to punnery. My father calmly sliced, toasted, and buttered a bagel for me. I took a bite and relaxed.
"Interesting article about the space program," he said.
I nodded and kept chewing.
"Johns Hopkins is doing a study on the nutritional impact of space. Do you know what those fellows eat?"
"Some sort of capsule or algae," I said.
"According to this article, all they eat is 'launch meat.' "
One bite later, the pun sunk in. He'd gotten me again! I clutched my stomach and groaned. Dad smiled.
Every neighborhood gathering, every family social, every Sunday school picnic, my father rolled out his jokes. I envied my friend Susan, whose dad quietly flipped hamburgers and freshened drinks. I wished for a father like Camilla's, who occasionally interjected a philosophical comment. I yearned for a parent like Uncle Frank, who inconspicuously lounged on the sofa, absorbing wrestling matches.
My father was at the center of every event, milking the crowd with the expertise of a Wisconsin dairy farmer.
When I reached high school, I avoided outings with my dad. Why did such a smart man stoop to such fourth-grade humor? And why did adults eagerly wait for that lull, when my father said, "Oh by the way, did you hear the one about....?"
I dreaded having a new boyfriend walk into my father's web. My father, looking innocuous in his La-z-boy, gently drawing the boy out. Until he found what he was looking for: the excuse for a joke.
"So where are you taking Debbie tonight? Dinner and a movie? You know, I recently ate at a Howard Johnsons. I order soup. The waiter brings my soup, and there's a stick in the middle of it.
" 'Waiter, what is this twig doing in my soup?' I demand.
" 'Oh, that's nothing, sir,' the waiter says. 'We have branches all over the country.' "
I'd enter the room just in time to see my potential Romeo roll his eyes and clear his throat. Then he'd crank out the smile. "Good one, sir. Do you think Debbie will be ready soon?"
AS an adult, I prepare for my father's jokes by watching my mother's reaction. When she sits up straight and looks alert, she's never heard the joke. When she groans and shakes her head, she's heard it, two too many times.
Several weeks ago, my friend Philip drops by to meet my family. My mother offers him a glass of orange juice, and my father graciously weaves Philip into the conversation. Philip tells my father how he loves the desert, and my father listens attentively. After a pause, Dad says, "Speaking of the desert...."
Mom and I glance at each other. The joke unfolds as casually as white bread. At the end, we all laugh, and my father settles back, like a chess master contemplating his next move.
"Your father is great," Philip says afterward. "I've never felt so at home meeting a new person."
"Well, he goes overboard sometimes with the humor," I say.
"I loved it," Philip says.
Suddenly, I realize my father is not just working for laughs: He is making people feel welcome, comfortable, and part of the group. My father has been quietly accomplishing the things I've been reading and studying about for years.
I often attend seminars on how to break the ice; I read books on how to bring people together in groups. Yet I've been in the presence of a master all these years without realizing it.
My daughters and I are at the supper table. I pass the baked potatoes and say, "I got a speeding ticket today."
"Mom, I can't believe it! You just had one last month!"
"The policeman who stopped me was nice. And a real body builder. I asked him why he was so strong."
I cut my tomato slice into quarters.
"So, what did he say?" Sarah asks.
"He said he's strong because he's constantly holding up traffic," I answer.
My daughters stop eating and give me "the look." They raise their eyebrows and shake their heads.
"You're as bad as grandpa," Hilee says.
I smile and bask in the praise. Then I wonder if they've heard the one about...