When I think about my maternal grandparents, who died in 1991 and 2000, and my stepfather, who died in 2018, it’s not sadness or loss that first hits me. Instead, I remember laughter.
Humor has long been my personal “coping mechanism,” and I often tell people that sarcasm is my second language, but I come by this honestly. Everyone in my family, both blood and chosen, responds with witty comebacks or painful puns, or just bad jokes whenever things are getting tense. Even my husband knows that the best way to shake me out of a gloomy mood is to make me laugh, and I do the same for him.
With my grandmother, we had two running gags.
At some point, one of my cousins said that my grandmother, who had osteoporosis as well as arthritis and developed a hunch and gnarled fingers as she entered her last decade of life, looked like the character of Yoda from Star Wars. My mother and the rest of the cousins thought it was hilarious, but Grandma herself didn’t understand the joke. We explained to her that Yoda was known for age and wisdom and was the object of great respect.
Thinking of her as the beloved muppet character helped us handle her increasing dementia. “Well of course Yoda can’t remember which name goes with which person. Think how many padawan’s they’ve taught.”
The other running joke was “our favorite game of hide-and-seek,” also known as “where did Grandma leave her dentures?” To be fair, this game had been going on long before her mind began to falter. I’ve been told there was a time when I was a toddler when they found her false teeth frozen into the dog’s outside water bowl, where they’d fallen from her sleeve. (Grandma was big on wrapping her teeth in tissue and shoving them up her sleeve. She was not fond of actually wearing them.) She won the game in the end, though. Long after her death, after she was cremated and I’d moved from California to Texas, I found a box marked “Knitting.” Inside, I found my grandmother’s knitting bag, and inside that – you guessed it! – her dentures.
Humor with my grandfather was different, mostly because he was the storyteller, the jokester. His timing was excellent (as you’d expect from a technical writer and hobbyist tinkerer), but mostly his stories were full of humor. A rare war story he told us once, involved the fact that margarine was being tested on soldiers during World War II. “It was great,” he said. “Looked good. Tasted good. There was one small problem: it didn’t melt.” He then regaled us with all the ways he and his buddies attempted to make it melt.
His mind was sharp until the moment he died, and he’d called me about a week before his death just to tell me stories and hear me laugh.
With my stepfather, humor defined our entire relationship. I was twelve when my mother married him, and he invaded our all-female lifestyle. I was prickly and untrusting (see above: I was twelve), but he was patient with me, largely because whenever he was angry about something, I would make him laugh.
Once, a couple of years after he joined the family, when I was at my most indignant teenaged self, I called him the worst thing I could think of calling an eco-conscious, vitamin-swilling man: “Ira,” I said, “you are an oil spill.” None of us remembers what prompted my outburst, but that name was brought up for decades after.
Later, when he was diagnosed with terminal multiple myeloma, I would tease him that he now had license to eat all the chocolate and take all the naps he ever wanted. He responded, “How is that new?”
Whether it was gentle teasing about there being better ways to get attention or trying to lessen the indignity of an older loved one needing help to change to use the bathroom, we joked. “You always did want someone else to hook your bra for you, didn’t you?” “Admit it, Grandma, buttons are just beneath your station in life.”
To us, all these things were funny, and they built upon layers and layers of affectionate teasing, but as each of these people in my life neared their final days, the humor became a salvation. When we couldn’t cry, we laughed. When we were so angry at situations (not enough nursing staff, doctors that wouldn’t listen) that we wanted to spit nails, we found the funny in the situation.
And even as we remember them – as I remember them – my tears are inevitably tempered by the memory of something amusing, and a smile pushes through.
There was a feature in the old Reader’s Digest magazines that my grandparents loved: “Laughter is the best medicine.”
The Reader’s Digest was right.