A Miracle Maker
Just a Girl
We Got Married
Preface & Reader Response
In my family, humor, or rather the absence of it, was serious business. At an early age, the measure of a young family member's social, emotional, and intellectual evolution was how quickly the member picked up on the humor adrift in the room.
by Jerry Murley
There are plenty of stories – clinical and compelling, instructive and inspiring – about childhood fortune, privation, affliction, and overcoming. There are many revealing and scandalous tales and autobiographies about the travails of the progeny of small-town ministers and bigwigs, of politicians, business thrivers, war heroes, music mavericks, movie icons, and sports standouts. This account is none of these, yet in some subtle ways it touches on most of these themes.
Life experience is relative to the people involved. It is a fault of mine that I often view the figures and events in my life as large and impressive. I wouldn't be much of a sentient realist if I didn't see my own life in that way. It is not an error to see those with whom we share life as more significant and prominent than those who are matter-of-factly accepted as grand by the transient societal standards of fame and importance that dominate the day. Completely seeing the magnificent life presented to one is itself a full-time and worthy occupation. Few things are only as they appear, yet recognition and remembrance of appearance is a mighty good first step to seeing the whole.
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My father was, still is, a funnyman. His bright, affable personality, his engagement, his energy, and his get-things-done know-how are legendary in my family circle. His humor and his playfulness are ubiquitous and insatiable. I see aspects of him in his father, in myself, and in my son. But that said, I think the bloom and flourish must skip every other generation. His approach to life has infected everyone of his immediate family; there are threads of it either directly or indirectly running from the source of the gene pool through everyone of his grandchildren. It has influenced how we interpret life and how we react to it. Back when I was voted Jolliest Boy in the sixth grade by my school mates and teachers, my parents – and particularly my sister – were astonished: they didn't know the boy being recognized in such a way. Apparently at home, it was more grimace and complaint than knee-slapping cut-up. It was to be but a brief flash in the pan for my humor characteristics, but it illustrates just how relative and how signal such things were at my home.
Dad was the ultimate exemplar of the sunny disposition. In a way, it was exhausting. When I needed it most in middle age, I experienced something similar from the perspective of a parent washed in the daily glow of an upbeat presence. Coming as it did then from my child to lift his adult father, it seemed entirely different and was immensely satisfying. But in reality it may have been a manifestation of the same pattern: an irresistible nature bursting forth in another generation.
In the prime of youth, while in high school and up though my sister's and my time in school, my father excelled in all ways that mattered most to our family: He did well academically in school, he was a student leader, he was a community leader, he was a church leader, and he was a public speaker. He earned a living and took responsibility for his family duties. He was tall, well proportioned and handsome, with thick, dark, wavy hair. He was athletic, hard working, sincere, warm, outgoing, and jocular. He had, and he still has, an easy, constant, wide-open smile with a slightly mischievous squint in his twinkling eyes. He was, in short, a tough act to follow.
When we lived in Frayser in the 1950s, where Dad eventually became a political leader, he worked in the insurance business with his father and older brother on the main highway between Millington and Memphis. He was active at my elementary school and was welcomed by the principal, teachers, and other parents. He attended and spoke at PTA meetings. He was involved in civic organizations such as the Lions Club and was a guiding hand, along with my mother, in work with high-school-age youth groups at our church. He was not above dressing up to perform with the Lions Club in a "Womanless Wedding" skit at Frayser High School to collect money to aid the blind. Nor did he shy away from other Lions Club fundraisers, like playing, while astride a donkey, in a madcap nighttime baseball game. It seemed everything was a laugh and every laugh had a payoff.
Later in Houston when our church was responsible for a Halloween party in cooperation with other area churches, he relished creating and operating a ghoulish experience for the kids. While blindfolded, the kids wandered a room where they were encouraged to handle questionably displayed foodstuffs meant to simulate body parts. One table featured a bowl of peeled grapes which were an eerie substitute for eyeballs. This grizzly room was a scary hit with the kids and a favorite of my father's. He relished any occasion for a inventive costume, especially if fabricating a foreign atmosphere was involved in the project. In Houston, he enjoyed the grass-skirted, beach-shirted, moo-moo-shrouded Hawaiian luaus the church sponsored for young married members and guests. Later, in Memphis, he led the March of Dimes, which entailed much backslapping and glad-handing, as well as extraordinary creativity in dreaming up fun activities that would enlist passionate participation in raising money to prevent birth defects. Dad was always in the middle of it. He sought it out and seemed to savor every minute.
When I was in high school, Dad and Mom attended a costume party dressed as hobos. For months, on the wall by the kitchen table where we ate most of our meals, hung a photograph of my father, smiling with blackened missing teeth, above the caption, "Six months ago I couldn't spell exective and today I are one."
In my family, humor, or rather the absence of it, was serious business. At an early age, the measure of a young family member's social, emotional, and intellectual evolution was how quickly the member picked up on the humor adrift in the room and how far the member was willing to go to play along with the game. The individual who was wrapped up in doom and gloom, and preposterous frowns and sighs, would soon find himself the object of light-hearted mockery. Sarcasm and cruel taunts, too, were simply not allowed to stand without themselves becoming the targets of jest.
Despite the fun of it, we nevertheless grew up in the shadows of a star. The bar was set high for my sister and me. In moments of pique, when I had been particularly troublesome about something, my mother would say, "If you grow up to be just half the man your father is, you will do all right."
For these very reasons, I believe I took a more subdued road. What else can you do when you stand in the shadow of an entertainment pooh-bah, the kingfish of household amusement? I remember being slightly humiliated when I brought friends home from church or for band practice. Not because Dad's jokes were bad – which they often were – and not because every sentence contained a pun – which they invariably did. But because he was always a hit. Everybody liked him. In comparison, my sister and I were wallflowers – second-class citizens at our own parties.
None of us could suffer an illness or an injury without it being turned into a pun, a prank, or a ready quip. When I chipped a tooth during my first full-suited football practice in Houston, he chirped about how bad the other guy must have felt. When I fell while walking up an icy driveway in junior high school and bit through my lower lip, he was delighted that the first words I said to a young junior-high girl standing nearby were "Kiss me." When I suffered a concussion in junior high football practice that turned my lights off for several hours in a sleep-walking kind of way, he teased me. The same followed when my sister was whacked in the brow with a metal pipe in elementary school, or when she drank paint-whitened turpentine thinking it was milk, or when she sliced her wrist on a tin can after one of my football games in Houston, or when she broke her leg trying to use a skateboard for the first time. All these were just pratfalls for the on-going show that was our family life.
Don't get me wrong, Dad still calmly took care of emergencies – and his humor did soften the blows and set our minds to where these minor personal catastrophes better fit into the larger scheme of things. But a little deflation always accompanied the situation as well. Drama wasn't allowed to prevail for long. We were encouraged to get up and get going. When I had a second bout of cancer at the age of 46 and lost all of my hair, a crushing blow to my son's sense of parental invulnerability, we went to Memphis for Thanksgiving. We had arrived for dinner just an hour or so earlier, when my father pulled the grandkids, including my son, into another room. They all returned sporting skin-tight bald caps, which made us all only a little less ridiculous looking than the Conehead family on SNL. So, despite my having six more months of chemotherapy, everything was all right, because it had finally been transformed into a family laugh. I was relieved that Dad was not around when the nausea started.
Though Dad was always ready with a creative pun, he was expert at winding up a humor-laced story about his high school days. He could build up and release a joke with precision. Dad learned his craft from many available experts. He grew up observing countless Southern storytellers at work, at church, and in politics. He listened to and observed the techniques of our national masters on radio, on phonograph records, on television, and at the movies. When we were together at home, we loved to watch comics doing stand-up monologues, performing skits, or acting movie roles. Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Andy Griffith, Jonathan Winters, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Jerry Lewis were among our favorites.
The one story that I have wanted my father to commit to writing or audio recording is one that he might not want to tell in all its glorious, incriminating detail – that is if he can remember the detail. On the Saturday that my mother, who is a year older than he, was to graduate from high school, my dad decided to first take a fishing trip with his best friend down to Pickwick. The comedy heats up when the motor of the boat falls off into the lake. Then as he and his buddy are wrestling with the motor, they see, with illusions of improved fortune, someone's wallet floating in the water. They soon realize that it is only one of their own soggy wallets. Eventually, in a panic to get home fast, he and his friend hop a freight train headed to Memphis and ride for hours sitting atop hard, jagged pig iron. With painfully sore backsides, they arrive too late into the path of my disappointed and, my guess, furious mother to be.
Of all the members of my family, my mother was perhaps the first to enjoy my brand of humor, though it took until my late adolescence for her to get used to it. My so-called humor was honed, if not born, after I had been in college for a number of years. It was unfamiliar ground for Mom: the dry, psychological approach to a sporting familial conversation. Much of my supposed wit was directed at her – or my sister. But once she locked onto it, only a little twist of a smile on my mouth or a crease of delight in the corner of my eye or the arched brows above widened eyes would synchronize us in mutual conspiracy, an understanding regarding my, at least partly, valid responses to family situations. Mine were simple, spontaneous, situational wisecracks; but once rehearsed, I was not ashamed to add them to a growing repertoire of light comebacks for the homefront. It wasn't long before my sister could read the signs clearly herself; she has long practiced the act of scrutinizing and recreating such behaviour, which now we witness everywhere in our children.
Though Dad is 82 now, the show must go on. His stories take a little longer to develop, but the spirit is kicking and he knows what should be funny, given the moment. However, now his audience is a group of college-educated grandchildren who find the stories as much "funny-peculiar" as they do "funny-haha," as Eudora Welty once put it. His grandchildren were schooled on a ceaseless diet of mimicry and parody. I have to admit that their humor is much more like mine but quicker: why invent or remember set-form jokes when the absurdity of modern society is so richly abundant that you don't have to say or do much more than point it out and underscore it. But the laughs aren't quite as fulfilling; there's not the same relief as that derived from the old-style yarn and the well-constructed, well-paced, and well-told joke retrieved at just the right moment. Now that's the work of an artist.
Nevertheless, Dad's supply of mentally filed-away jokes must be endless. When I call to tell him my mother-in-law is having cataract surgery, which he and my mother had a couple of years ago, he quickly tells me the one about the Chinaman whose doctor tells him that he has a cataract; to which the Chinaman responds, "No, I drive a Rincoln." Or if I call him and describe the one-inch pipe I am putting in for a much-needed irrigation system, he tells me of the time that Texas had a bad drought and the governor of Texas appealed to the governor of Oklahoma for help. The governor of Oklahoma says he'll run a one-inch water pipe across the border into Texas. The Texas governor asks what good that will do. To which the governor of Oklahoma responds, "If Texans can suck as hard as they blow, there will be flooding in Texas."
Obviously, there are few holds barred regarding elements of religious affiliations, gender, ethnicity, financial intelligence, practical common sense, or regional differences in these jokes. But remarkably, they are never mean spirited or unfit for mixed company. Dad can usually make 'em laugh – or at least smile. Still, the star casts a long shadow on the rest of us meager beings who must find our fulfillment in being ready listeners and hearty laughers, even while occasionally smarting under the cosmic disproportion of our allotted limelight.