Losing the Laughter
As a child growing up, nothing and no one could make me laugh till my sides split and my face hurt except my sister, Nanette. I call her sister though we siblings from another mister if you will. We grew up and into ourselves with each other from the age of eight. As rural kids we had a free and frolicsome life, running through the woods, riding horses for hours on end, playing in the ancient barn that always seemed unsafe and therefore magnetic. It finally did fall down one Sunday morning when everyone else was at Mass and I was sitting on the porch, proving it truly was a terror in the making but hey, no animals were harmed in the watching of this incident.
Nan and I always had a unique ability to jointly see the absurd in life and were drawn toward people, places, and feelings that engendered a sense of delight. The laughter followed naturally and grew over the years.
One Sunday supper, we were maybe 17 or 18, we were in the formal dining room assembled en mass, something the father figure tried to require as a family bonding time but there was such a vast gap in ages that getting us all together was difficult at best, and felt really odd and oppressive to the older contingent of us. There were fancy linen tablecloths, formal china settings and Maida, the grandmother doyenne, was in attendance as well. It is fair to say the she was not a fan of children so having seven of them at table was already a challenge for her. She was a New Orleanian through and through so Manners were paramount and we were frankly a feral herd at best.
Dinner was through, the oldest of us were planning our escape to go get stoned and head to the movies so fidgeting was flagrant. Then Mike came in. At the time, Mike was Nan’s boyfriend and would one day become the father of their amazing daughter, Brooke Corinne. For now, though, he was the scruffy, barely tolerated hippie who was undoubtedly corrupting their eldest child, so the reception was chilly but hey, it was Sunday, prayers had been prayed at Mass and over food so there was a largesse in the air. Mike pulled up a chair while we were finishing coffee and dessert.
And then it happened.
Mike reached over Nan’s plate and took a sip of her coffee. Out of her cup. At this point grandmother Maida could not contain herself any longer. Someone needed to be the sacrificial lamb for the collective sins of the table that she had endured in silence thus far. She spoke, acridly, and said
“You allow him to drink from the same CUP as you, Nanette???”
And Nan, the oblivious provocateur, replied:
“Well, I KISS him, don’t I? Same germs.”
At this point, the oldest of us who were not doing spit takes were watching for the explosion from Maida that just had to be imminent. What exploded was the laughter. It launched from a place within each of us that had been tensely restraining our behavior for the entire dinner hour and now, thanks to Nan, all bets were off. The little kids thought we were simply nuts so they starting screaming with kid laughter. The stern-faced father was trying to maintain discipline, something he attempted to instill on a completely random schedule so one can say it was laughably ineffective at best and really, only added to the hilarity that was racing around the table like a wildfire. Nan, not thinking she had said anything out of the norm, finally realized that control had been lost; people were falling on the floor holding their sides and screaming. Even mom finally ceded her normally fun and cheery façade to history and joined in with her own oh-so-special gut laugh. She would perfect that laugh over the years much to her mother’s dismay.
And so, the level of laughter perfection that Nan and I have shared was cemented for future decades. It took very little for she and I to dissolve into gales of guffaws that we honestly had no control over. Disabling fits that seemed almost medically dangerous when we were in them but again, no control. They would leave us weak and sore and grinning but something else.
The calm that would eventually overtake us was a shared euphoria of delight. We had shed all the teenaged angst and adult worry and whatever else was inhabiting our darker natures; we had killed the worst in us and let the best of us shine…for a while. It was therapeutic. It was delight in each other in that only the two of us knew what the laughter was about (frequently nothing!) and that only the two of had had this moment in life, together. As the years went on, we would set out in the car, sometimes stoned (oh all right, often high), with one destination in mind.
We were out to get lost.
We drove through the rural countryside of our youth staying only on small, two-lane, back roads and making only turns that would take us away from anything familiar. We would drive for hours yakking and listening to the radio until that magic moment would simultaneously dawn on us. We were lost. And for some reason that was the key, the impetus, the trigger that turned on the laugh track that we both craved. We would sit on the side of some unnamed country lane and scream with laughter at our ability to lose ourselves while being lost. Nothing was really funny, but everything was truly hilarious.
Another cleansing of the heart and soul complete. Peace. Out.
Years later I was home visiting from California. Mom was living with Nan and Max in Gettysburg, PA. The big day out with Mom was shopping at the Gettysburg Outlet Mall and movie or lunch. Olive Garden was the spot. The three of us got our table and were trading tales and playing catchup. I have never been able to exactly pinpoint what the trigger was, but it happened. Something set us off and Nan and I started to giggle, then gasp, then scream out loud. Mom, watching us, became infected with whatever insanity had gripped Nan and I, and collapsed with us.
We tried, really, we did.
We tried at least act normal. Sugar an iced tea perhaps? Spilled sugar from the trebling hands only fueled more laughter. This was not a polite little tintinnabulation of charming voices elevated in modest mirth. Oh, no. This was flat out spit your food and howl time. We were now laughing at each other’s inability to control themselves. Nan and I were screaming “Don’t LOOK at me!!!” Mom was spitting “What are we laughing about??”
That is where it went off the rails.
Diners all around us (oh fine, the entire restaurant) was noticing us. Noticing may be too demure a term. There were unapologetic glares. People were corralling their small children and covering their ears and turning them away from the spectacle that was us.
Ok. Maybe not quite that bad but people were definitely not amused and, the waitress was now hovering around us like a fly on the butter dish and shooting us what can only be described as the “I am about to call a manger” look.
Chastisement is a weapon.
Teachers have used it for millennia. The Look can stop traffic or encase over-abundant behavior. In our case, the the withering reproachful glare from our waitress had an effect. It did. Nan and I having done our time on the floor of many a food service establishment recognized The Look. We knew we were about to be 86’d. From the Olive Garden.
The utter absurdity of that struck us as, well funny. So that funny was added into the already funny show in progress and we knew we were going to tell this story forever. ‘The Day We Got 86’d From the Olive Garden…With Mom’. And off we went.
I think we just plain wore out funny out because we eventually calmed down, finished up our meal, paid and left. The leaving was a tad awkward as everyone, I now do mean everyone, stared us out the door and into the car where we once more broke down at the thought of how utterly absurd and perfect that moment had been.
Sharing laughter with Nanette has been a life-long joy for me. I wait for our time together so that we can simply let go and laugh until it hurts. It is a cleansing ritual that I share with only her. As Nan let’s go once more, this time of her mortal coil, I must find a way to regain my smile and maybe one day my laughter. For now…..
I’m Losing My Laughter