Choosing to laugh: a family’s approach to life

The author’s father made it his life’s mission to coax laughter out of his family — but sometimes it was best to wait awhile

One time my sister got two baby ducks and named them Harold and Louise after our parents. The next spring, an egg appeared in the duck pen. Being in about Grade 4, she reported this event for her “news of the day” at school.

“I have two ducks named Harold and Louise,” she said, “and this morning, Harold laid an egg.”

Marilyn’s story travelled to the staff room where Mom heard it and brought it home to share at the supper table.

Then the human Harold almost laid an egg from the laughter and almost fell out of his chair.

Dad loved to laugh and liked to make everyone around him laugh along. In most of our family photos, Dad is talking, trying with mediocre success to make us smile. He did it to prevent the “McLean smile.”

We coined the term “McLean smile” while taking a picture of Mom, formerly Miss Louise McLean.

“Mom, smile. You never smile for a picture,” we said.

Straight-faced, she replied, “I am smiling. I’m smiling inside.”

We all hooted, even Mom. She looked dead serious for every photo.

After that, we’d say, “don’t use the McLean smile, really smile this time.” Dad cracked some really good ones until she smiled just a little.

Mom lived in constant terror of some kind of tragedy. “Don’t go near that dugout. You’ll fall in and drown. Don’t walk down the tracks. You’ll get run over. Don’t go near the gulley, you’ll drown. Don’t, don’t, don’t.”

We heard it often, but the good part is, she often laughed at herself later.

There was the time Dad was haying and asked us kids to tramp the hay down on the stack. Dad’s aunt, Aunt Mary, was visiting and Mom asked her if she’d like to relive her past farming days by joining us and Mom would come along, too.

Always up for anything, Aunt Mary agreed. She had no farm clothes but that didn’t matter. She always wore a dress, high-heeled shoes and jewelry wherever she went.

Dad lifted us onto the stack with the bucket, a height of about 10 feet. With every new load of hay dropped, we tramped on it, goose-stepping and grinning, even Aunt Mary in her high heels.

Nervous as ever, Mom called out, “don’t go near the edge; you’ll fall off and break your neck.”

The whole afternoon was regularly punctuated with her warning.

Between loads, we rested on top of the hay, usually joking and having a snack. The breaks got longer as Dad had to go farther for a full bucket. During one of those breaks, James suddenly asked where Mom had gone.

We looked around and realized she had vanished. Someone looked over the edge in time to see her red face rising up over the side. She had fallen off, landing on her head.

Her pride was bruised more than anything, especially since Aunt Mary witnessed the spectacle, but after that, she focused more on her own position on the stack than ours. After a few days, she could laugh over it, but at the time we all kept silent while she scaled back up the slippery haystack.

One time, Mom ordered new linoleum for the dining room. It was the room where the heat register was located.

The new linoleum was installed but still lay over the hole the register usually covered. Dad would have to cut the hole, but farm work came first and when he had time, he’d get to it and put the register back in place.

In the meantime, Mom was near a nervous breakdown. “Don’t go in the dining room, you’ll fall through that hole.”

On Sunday morning, we all came in from church, eager to get out of church clothes. With her mind elsewhere, Mom hurried through the dining room and, yup, you guessed it, dropped through. Her skirted ankles and good shoes dangled into the basement while she gasped and struggled to save herself. Fortunately, her descent occurred close to the edge. Her natural reaction was to throw out her arms, which caught the edge before sailing completely through.

After the haystack fiasco, none of us wanted to go in to the dining room to help her in case we burst out laughing and Dad was nowhere in sight.

We hid in the kitchen, hands over mouths and our eyes shut tight. Later, she could laugh, too. Johnny Cash’s song Ring of Fire was at its height on the radio and when we heard him singing, “I fell into a burning ring of fire,” we’d all hoot and say, “they’re playing Mom’s song.”

It was good to choose humour and laugh when we could.

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