Comic Relief

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My great-aunt Beulah and I were searching for ripe tomatoes in her garden when she said, “It’s a good funeral when you laugh as much as you cry.” She then spotted a tomato slug and squished it beneath her galoshes while I pondered her perplexing observation.

Seven years later in high school during a discussion of Romeo and Juliet, my English teacher said Shakespeare used puns, witty dialogue and funny characters to weave scenes of comic relief into his tragedies to give his audiences a break from feuds, betrayals, suicides and murders most foul. Mr. Sabatini then paused so we could reflect on his brilliance and ran his chalk-coated fingers through his abundant black hair, a habit we noticed.

“Wow, I thought, “William Shakespeare and Skunk Sabatini are no smarter than Aunt Beulah.”

Research has since confirmed the social blessings of laughter: when something tickles us and we tee-hee together, tensions lessen. Whether disagreeing with a loved one, entering a roomful of strangers or enduring a blind date; we feel more connected to those who share our laughter.

To get a teaching credential in Nevada, I had to be tested for TB at a public health office, which was not a happy place. Some folks were there at the behest of others; a few had worrisome symptoms; some needed a shot or two or three; and others nervously awaited test results. I sat in crowded waiting room filled with anxiety, impatience and sodden tissues.

Suddenly the door flew open and a disheveled young man, who looked a bit berserk, strode to the front desk. “Hey, I need to see a sex doctor,” he announced in his outdoor voice.

“We don’t have a doctor today. Just nurses.”

“Well, I gotta see a doc. Tiny bastards are crawling around like crazy. Down there. I think they’re probably crabs from this girl I met.”

“You can’t see a doctor until Monday. If you’d like to see a nurse today, take a seat and do this paperwork — well, actually, it might be better if you stand.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Monday? It’s the weekend. The little suckers will ruin my social life. I’m going to the emergency room.”

The door slammed behind him, and spontaneous laughter exploded around the room. Even the receptionist lost her professional composure and succumbed to the merriment. “Did you hear that? Can you believe it?” we gasped.

In those shared moments of hilarity, we became friends. We continued to chat easily and shared a last chuckle when someone left: “Goodbye, have a good weekend, enjoy your social life,” we said to folks we’d studiously ignored earlier.

As Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula, “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles. And yet when King Laugh come, he make them all dance to the tune he play. Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burn as they fall, all dance together to the laughter that he make…”

We can laugh as well as we ever did, laugh fully and joyously until the day we die; and when we do, tears will be balanced by laughter at our funerals.

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Happy April Fool’s Day

Each year, as the optimistic and abundant personality of spring begins to establish itself, I think about a dear friend who had those same traits; a man who created April-Fool’s fun every day for everybody.

Ernie shambled into my classroom — gleeful smile, low-flapping ears, bulgy nose, blue eyes bleached from years at sea — and handed me the construction paper I’d ordered from the supply room. “My, my, my, aren’t you the busy one,” he remarked.

Though his droll manner amused me, I refused to be diverted and managed to catch him as he slid a box of multi-sized, multi-hued rubber bands onto my desk along with the paper.

“Ernie, that’s the third box of rubber bands you’ve brought me this month; I don’t need them; I never use them.”

“Well then, Missy,” he replied, grabbing the construction paper and clutching it to his chest, “You shan’t have this either!”

A previous custodian at Grace Bordewich School had purchased two cases of rubber bands, an item teachers rarely request. Boxes of the aging bands littered the storage room in untidy stacks and offended Ernie’s navy-developed sense of order.

No matter what a staff member ordered—penmanship paper, a box of staples, a set of Magic Markers — Ernie delivered the requested supplies along with a bonus: a box of rubber bands.

One year Mary, the school librarian and Ernie’s inventive equal, baked a lavishly frosted, chocolate cake for Ernie’s birthday and invited the staff to come to the library after school to share it with him.

My fun-loving friends, Ernie and Mary

My fun-loving friends, Ernie and Mary

Ernie praised the beauty of the cake, predicted its deliciousness, then seized the knife Mary offered, and cut — attempted to cut — the first piece. It was tough going: with each swipe of the knife, the rubber bands Mary had stirred into the batter wiggled, sproinged, and snapped.

When Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle; and, always, his gulping guffaws caused others to join in. Bedlam broke out in the library.

Eventually, the birthday boy, stifling snorts, carried the cake away to show others.

The next morning, Mary found a note on her desk. It explained that Ernie’s mom had taught him to never return an empty dish. Mary’s cake pan sat next to the note, filled with rubber bands of various sizes, many in pieces, and all carefully washed, though here and there a chocolate crumb lingered.

A few years later, when I went through a divorce, I discovered another side of Ernie. I sat in my sunlit kitchen, tears dripping from my chin, telling him about my hurt, self-doubt, anger, and fear as I faced life alone. He listened quietly, shook his head, and made no attempt to reassure me or tell me what to do.

He didn’t talk about his divorce, didn’t offer to keep my car running, didn’t suggest I work my way into the singles scene or get a new hairdo. Instead, he looked at me with concern and affection and murmured, “Oh, Janet. Oh my. Oh, Janet.” He understood I needed a listener, not an advisor.

Every year, as April breaks, I miss my generous, fun-loving friend.