One of my favorite movies of all time is Steel Magnolias. Not just because of the excellent title or the Louisiana setting, or even because of the terrific female actors or even the beautiful story of the connection we have with friends and family. I love it because of its mix of humor and grief, of good things and bad things; because I laughed as much as I cried while watching it (and continue to do so even after having watched it about fifty times).
I’m all for heart-tugging stories in books and movies. It is what I write, after all. But life isn’t all about tears. Sometimes you have to look really hard to find the humor in a situation, but it’s there. You just have to convince yourself that you can find it. Because sometimes things are so awful that you’re this close to climbing to the top of the nearest roof and screaming. But finding something to smile about is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s what makes us human.
My eighty-one year old father is the sole caretaker on my 78-year-old mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. My dad is from the generation of kids raised during the Great Depression where you learned to rely only on yourself and your family for survival. To this day, he will not accept help from any source. Which is why he fell off a 12-foot ladder (while holding a chainsaw) while trying to trim off a branch of a tree that was blocking his view from his recliner. He required about forty-five stitches despite insisting to his neighbor (who happened to witness the fall) that he only needed a Band-Aid.
After he was all patched up and we knew he would be okay, my three brothers and I were soon joking about the whole horrible incident—comparing our dad to the Monty Python character who, after having both arms severed and is profusely spurting blood, insists on calling his injuries “only flesh wounds.” We even went so far as to mention getting a custom t-shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned in the front. We managed to laugh, while at the same time removed both ladder and chainsaw from our father’s garage.
My husband and I recently visited my parents, helping them to prepare for the big move from their home to a retirement community where there would be help for my father (and no more trees he’d feel compelled to trim). My mother’s long-term memory is still as clear as ever, but her short-term memory has been reduced to less than a minute.
While sitting with my parents one evening after dinner, my mother would constantly ask the same question. “So, what are the kids up to?” Sometimes she seems to remember that they’re both in college, but not always. She does remember their names, and ours, which is comforting. After answering her question with the same answer about ten times, I was looking over at my husband, hoping he had some sort of escape plan. No such luck.
When my mom asked the same question again, I answered it with dialogue from one of my husband’s and my favorite movies Christmas Vacation. In particular it’s the scene where Cousin Eddy (wearing a blue leisure suit and white dickie) is talking to Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) and drinking eggnog out of enormous moose (Wally World) glasses. And, because my husband has the dialogue memorized, too, it went something like this as I answered my mother’s question for the eleventh time:
Me: “Meghan’s in the clinic, getting cured off the Wild Turkey. And, Connor, bless his soul, is preparing for his career.”
Husband: “You got to be proud.”
Me: “Oh, yeah. Yeah, last season he was a pixie-dust spreader on the Tilt-O-Whirl. He thinks that maybe next year, he’ll be guessing people’s weight or barking for the Yak woman. You ever see her?”
Me: “She’s got these big horns growing right out above her ears. Yeah, she’s ugly as sin, but a sweet gal. And, a heck of a good cook.”
My mother laughed, enjoying listening to our tall tale. At least until thirty seconds later. “So, what are the kids up to?”
Alzheimer’s is a horrible beast, and if I couldn’t find something to laugh about, my heart would break a little bit more every time she repeated the same question. Humor is what gets us through the day.
In my June 2013 release, THE TIME BETWEEN, I have two sets of sisters—Hungarian refugees from 1944, and modern day sisters who have grown up on Edisto Island, South Carolina. Tragedy links the two sets of sisters, as does music, as their tales of heartache, loss, and eventual redemption are explored throughout the book.
But it’s the frequent glimpses into the lighter side of life as seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Gigi Beaufain, that lifts the reader to a realistic portrayal of life. It’s a life that is an equal mixture of good and evil, light and darkness, joy and sadness. It’s real life.
Three years ago, at the funeral of my beloved grandmother, several of my cousins and I were standing at the open casket, reminiscing on the life of this wonderful woman who’d been such a special part of our lives. Several of us were disconcerted to notice that Momo wasn’t wearing her trademark earbobs. I was not alone in the belief that Momo would not want to meet Jesus without her earbobs (clip-on, of course).
Apparently, my Aunt Lulu had thought they looked too big on her and had removed them, but we convinced her to go get them from her purse and allow Cousin Sharon to clip them back on Momo’s ears while she lay in repose at the front of the church.
All through the gathering that followed the service, we talked and laughed about it, knowing that Momo would be right there with us, laughing her sweet laugh. The laughter was a celebration of this amazing woman and her life that was filled with much sorrow, but never stopped her from laughing or delighting in something as insignificant as a snow-flurry falling in her yard in the Mississippi Delta.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy Christmas Vacation so much. It’s about a guy who really loves his family and wants to give them the best Christmas ever—yet fails miserably. It’s something we can all relate to. And if we can laugh at him and his attempts, then we can laugh at ourselves, too. And that, dear readers, is what life is all about.