Lessons In Laughter
My son learned about spitballs on the morning of April 27, 1996, around 9:30 a.m. It was a clear spring morning and the chill in the air promised to give way by noon. My father spent his time that morning in a booth at Waffle House, explaining to an attentive five-year-old the precise amount of paper napkin which would fit through a standard plastic straw, and that a sloppy, wet blob of paper traveled farthest.
I know the day and the time because that is the day we buried my mother.
It was an oddly calm morning. I'd like to attribute that calm to drugs or maybe alcohol because who can possibly be calm when burying a mother, but to be honest, the effects of both had worn off a day or two before the service. Somehow several days disappeared between the phone call that pronounced me a motherless child and the moment when I arrived at the funeral home wearing a black dress.
None of this seemed real. Not the last two weeks in Durham, not the last three months of hospitals and tests and rapid physical deterioration. And who shows up to Waffle House suited and stockinged on a Saturday morning? Who spends the next forty-five minutes one-upping one another, shocking their waitress, and eventually being kicked out of the restaurant when one of the aforementioned spitballs lands on an extremely unhappy and loudly vocal customer who was not part of our group?
It couldn't be helped; really, it couldn't. That stranger walked by the wrong table at the exactly right moment—just when my son's lungs, filled with a seriously deep breath, reversed the direction of all that air, sending it down the channel of a perfect red straw ten minutes before we needed to leave for the church. We reached the church a bit earlier than planned.
Our first waitress was well compensated for her time and our shenanigans. After all, we felt pretty bad after she handed our tables over to a coworker. I guess it's possible that some people just don't understand our family's sense of humor. The whole thing could have been avoided, anyway, if she'd have simply brought the coffee, taken our orders, and not asked any personal questions. Or maybe if Mama hadn't taught us to laugh when we felt like crying.
When life got too hard, or everything seemed to be falling apart, Mama'd tell us to find something good in the situation, or at least to find something to laugh about. We laughed about a lot growing up. Most good, some not so good, but finding a way to laugh together was how we dealt with trouble.
Of course, that often earned us quite a few strange looks, even some down right dirty ones. Sitting in the Waffle House, dressed in funeral finery that Saturday, we didn't need any sideways glances from locals, we knew we were overdressed for a Saturday. And I guess it's only to be expected that a chatty waitress would ask if we were on our way to a wedding that day.
This simple question started it all. My younger brother, Daniel, never turned his back on an opportunity. To be honest, though, if he hadn't said it quickly, one of us would most likely have.
“Nope. Not today. We're going to a funeral. Gotta drop Mom in the ground in time to get back home before dark,“ he quipped.
Not seeming to notice the expression of shocked horror on that little brunette's face, my sister, Caroline, added, “You mean if they finally have her pickled! You'd think that for five grand, you'd get same day service. Jeez, where's customer service these days?”
Our waitress muttered something about bringing more coffee and quickly left. We went on with our conversation, laughing at Daniel’s recollection of Mama’s last two weeks in the cancer unit at Duke University Hospital. We were all there in Durham, somehow able to interrupt our lives to be with her for that time, together as a family, surrounding her as she drifted away from us a little each day.
We passed the long, stressful nights in the hospital teaching some of the younger doctors (and a resident or two) how to pitch pennies in the hallway. These poor guys had spent way too much time studying and not enough time living and learning important things like how to win money gambling, so we felt obliged to do something for the people who were doing everything they could for our Mama.
“Won quite a bit of money off a couple of 'em when we switched to quarters. Could have been more if Dr. Jacobs hadn’t been a natural.” Daniel, the baby of the family, had always been competitive. It was a survival skill, what with two older sisters and an older brother. Kid had to take his victories where he could and these early doctors, well, they lost graciously. Might have been that they were feeling sorry for us, knowing the truth about our mama's chances.
Sharing this memory, and the laughter, somehow helped to lighten the burden of the coming funeral. After all, didn't a beautiful spring morning deserve laughter? And it’s not like we didn’t love Mama or even that we were being irreverent; we were just doing what she had taught us, find something humorous in every painful event, some point where laughter can facilitate the healing process. Even Reader's Digest knew the truth of that—we had grown up reading that Laughter, the Best Medicine, column every month.
We had taken turns, one of us staying in the room each night so that she wasn't alone in the hospital and everyone else could get some rest at daddy's house. In the midst of everything, I hadn't realized until late in the afternoon that my night with Mama happened to fall on my birthday. But my stepmom made me a chocolate cake and I had relatives everywhere as I spent this last birthday with Mama.
“Do you remember my birthday—when it was my turn to stay overnight?” I asked before the situation in the Waffle House hit critical mass. "She insisted on trying to give her piece of cake to the dog and got really ticked off every time we told her it wasn’t real, that it was a stuffed animal on her bed,” I laughed. “Later, after you had all left, she was genuinely worried that I was upset with the dog. When I asked her why I would be upset, she leaned over and said “Well, I know he growled at you about the cake."
Of course, that was the same afternoon I pulled her hospital gown up over her shoulder after it slipped down, knowing how embarrassed she would be about showing a bare shoulder. She responded by jerking the gown back down and angrily saying to me, “Stop. You are going to give me a tan line.” She really thought she was on the beach.
It was while we were occupied in this discussion and with our healing laughter that my father had been up to mischief of his own, teaching my five-year-old son the fine art (or sport?) of shooting spitballs. I heard him say that Waffle House napkins were about the best ammo you could hope for and I turned to look back at him in the corner booth.
“What happened to good manners and proper behavior, Daddy? You are supposed to be a good influence on the children,” I rebuked him, and soon felt a sticky glob of wet napkin on my cheek, his only response.
Seeing our new waitress close by I called out, “Can you believe this? My Mother doesn't even have a grave that she can roll over in and my father is teaching innocent children to misbehave.”
My older brother, Arthur, said, “That reminds me of the time Daddy came grocery shopping with us and spent most of his time putting cans of food into other customer’s baskets when they weren’t looking. And the time we went shopping for school clothes and he kept taking pins out of the shirts and chasing us all around Belk's. Mama yelled at us for making noise until she discovered what he was up to.”
Daniel asked, “Yeah Pop, what was that all about? You were the one that punished us for bad behavior when we were out in public. Why did you try to start trouble?”
“She never again asked me to come along for school shopping, did she?” It seems that Daddy knew how to get out of the things he didn’t want to do, how to work around Mama. I couldn’t resist reminding him that there was one thing he had never managed to change about her.
“Remember how she hated to see gum stuck under the tables?” For years, my family owned a skating rink and Mama insisted that we remove gum from tables and chairs every Saturday morning. Gum duty really sucked. I don't know if you have ever been responsible for separating someone else's spent gum from the underside of a table using only a paint scraper, but I can tell you that there are far more pleasant ways to spend a Saturday morning. This is gum that had been in someone else's mouth.
“We hated that job. Even now, the thought of scraping someone’s hard, used gum off any surface gives me the creeps.” Caroline shuddered as she said this.
“And she even looked under tables in the restaurants,” Arthur added, "didn't bother her at all to look up under there with the entire dining room watching."
"I reckon if she could eat those school rolls you brought home on Wednesdays, she could face down abandoned gum under a table." This was my dad, joining the conversation, having already sullied my son's morals and started him down the path to deviance.
Mama taught us quite a few things about life, about growing up. One was that we should share—not a bad thing to work on in a family with four kids. It did not come naturally to me, however, nor was it pleasant for Mama. I fought it for a long time, but eventually Mama won and the lesson stuck. There would be many years and many lessons in life before I truly understood what it meant to put another person before me.
Arthur also learned about sharing, which was just fine with me. (This was a year or so before my younger sister came along and ruined my life.) One year older than me, my parents expected him to be more mature, to act as an example to the younger child. Like most new parents, my mother did not have realistic expectations of developmental levels for toddlers and small children.
As anyone raised in the South knows, eating in front of another person and not offering to share is just downright wrong. Bad manners, bad raising. I completely agreed with this as long as it wasn't me that had to share.
I always immediately devoured my treats, especially anything chocolate. Arthur was different; he refused to eat his when he got them. He could make a candy bar last for days. And a stick of gum? He'd take about a half inch off each time and chew that all day. It didn’t take me long to discover that if my candy was gone, I could get half of his by waiting until he decided to eat a small piece, then threatening to go to Mama if he didn’t share. Of course, he almost always refused, and after Mama reminded him of his manners, he had to share. It took him years to figure out that he needed eat his treats alone in his room out of my sight.
Of course, Arthur learned some hard lessons as well. He learned that as the older brother, he had a responsibility to not only protect me, but also to set an example. Even as a child of three and a half, he was the older brother and, as such, was expected to act like a small adult. So when he had gotten his hand spanked yet again for playing in the flowerpot in the kitchen, he decided to share the experience with me. After deliberately placing my hand in the pot while Mama watched, he was surprised to discover that I was not punished—he was. This little test didn't work out the way he planned. Disappointed, he finally learned to stay away from the flowers. I, on the other hand, had discovered an amazing truth, that punishment can be shared. This was the kind of sharing that I could really participate in. Being the generous person that I was, it seemed only natural that I should spend the next seventeen years making quite certain that everyone received a fair amount of punishment anytime I had some headed my way.
Over time, I learned to share good things also. In the third grade, I found out that my mother loved the fresh rolls baked by our school cafeteria every Wednesday. Somehow I managed to deny my desire to slather butter on those warm, soft rolls every Wednesday. I didn't eat them, not once, after learning my mama loved them. Sometimes wrapped in a napkin, most often not, I carried them home every week as a gift to Mama. We even turned it into a game after she realized that the Wednesday gift had become a routine.
“Mama, we’re home,” I'd call out as we came through the front door in the afternoon.
“Come tell me about your day,” she answered. After hearing what we had to saw about the school day, she remained at the kitchen table, pretending to be occupied with something after everyone else went outside to play. Looking up as if she were surprised to see me still sitting there, she would ask, “Was there something else you wanted to tell me?”
“No, but I wasn’t really hungry at lunch today, so I brought home what I couldn’t eat.” Reaching slowly into my pocket, I'd hand her the roll and bask in her look of surprise and pleasure.
“Thank you. I have enjoyed these rolls since I went to the same school at your age." Then she taught me another lesson about sharing—that it required accepting a gift no matter how squashed, dirty, and unappetizing it may be. And after an afternoon in a kid's coat pocket with dirt, lint, and sometimes even leaves, a roll didn't stand much of a chance. But still, Mama ate those rolls as if they came straight from heaven.
* * *
So, here I was, decades later, freshly expelled from the Waffle House, dressed in black, walking through the door of the funeral home. I did not go into the room where she was, where the rest of my family looked on her for the last time and acknowledged friends who came to offer condolences.
I never looked at her, have no idea of how she looked or what she was wearing. I won't lie about or try to pretend that I had a good reason for refusing. And I am not ashamed of it.
Everyone said she looked great, that her makeup was perfect—HAH! I know we are not talking about my mother—she never wore makeup, just a little lipstick ritually applied before leaving house. Sometimes she even dabbed a bit of lipstick on her cheeks as well, just like my old-maid great aunts used to do.
As a child, her complete violation of the Women Wear Makeup rule embarrassed me terribly. As an adult, I thought that she had probably reached a compromise with her ego, ensuring that we children were fed and clothed while satisfying the desire to look her best while without feeling guilty that she had spent money on herself. Looking back at my childhood, I realize that she often denied herself the things she enjoyed—new clothes, makeup, and jewelry—because she would rather give us the things we wanted, like bicycles, books, and radios.
Trained as a nurse and graduating at the top of her class, Mama gave up a career to stay at home while all her friends and neighbors were discovering the benefits of a two-income household. All the doctors and even the head nursing staff begged her to reconsider, but she chose to stay home with us. Instead of dressing the wounds of strangers, she cleaned and bandaged our scrapes; in place of long nights hovering over critical patients, she shared long afternoons with her children; rather than positioning the original art of recognized masters, she learned to appreciate and admire refrigerator art. She inventoried socks and pretended to find conversations about recess, lunch, and Captain Kangaroo interesting. It was her choice. And I know that she never regretted making it.
But still, I didn’t go in to see her. She was my mother, my shoulder to cry on, my ballast. She gave and taught love, laughter, life. And now she was dead. I could not go in to the room where she lay that Saturday because my Mama was not in there; she was, and remains, in my heart.
She was a saint. Many people have said those words to me over the years. I had just left a restaurant filled with the people who thought so; so many of us gathered there that we occupied over half of the Waffle House. Family, you expect them to be there. But more than half of the people that morning were new friends or people who had known her for many years, people who had driven five to eleven hours to say goodbye to this special woman.
Much of the funeral is still a blur. We sat, prayed, and sang. Several of her close friends spoke. Afterwards came the long drive to the gravesite, where the minister spoke a few more words of condolence. Then everyone began to leave. Finally there were only the four of us, her children. We approached the casket one last time; someone, I never looked up to see who, pulled roses from the spray that draped across the top, handing one to each of us as we moved up and then walked away.
My turn came. I took my rose and knew that there was one thing left for me to do, one final joke, one final act of rebellion. One thing that must be done before leaving my mother for the last time. She would understand. I like to think that she would laugh.
As innocently as possible, I pulled out the gum I was chewing, leaned down and pressed it tightly to the bottom of her casket.
Then I walked away.
A poet, potter, and philosopher with a love for language that almost equals her love for coffee and chocolate, Tammie Rice currently lives within a two-hour drive of the North Carolina coast. She shares her home with 2 cats, 8 koi, 5 goldfish, a small turtle named Cooter Brown, and a husband who gets her. She is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women as a therapeutic exercise in living with the grief of her son's death.