Humor is an antidote to old age.
My father’s 96th birthday reaffirmed that.
Seeing he was born on Ground Hog’s Day, the standard question is whether the pesky rodent saw his shadow or not and whether winter is on the wane. My father is accustomed to the inquiry as if, being born on Feb. 2, the power of forecasting were transformed to him, too.
As kids, the ground hog connection provided good material for my sister and I to draw on and birthday cards of ground hogs emerging from their holes to declare happy birthday, although it was most often difficult to distinguish exactly the form of critter I had drawn. It was a cross between a pig, a cat and a dog with extended front teeth that could have made it a beaver.
“Oh, it’s that time again,” my father said, marveling how quickly the year had melted away. A couple of weeks ago, my daughter Diana and her daughter, Natalie, were here from Wyoming, so we held somewhat of a pre-birthday party, although he wanted to “save” gift opening for the actual day and, heaven knows, he never would have tolerated a cake.
“How old am I?” he inquired.
I had a good idea he knew and was testing us.
“You know, I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said of his conception.
My brother-in-law Edward and I agreed, although I reminded father that he had played a vital role in my presence on Earth.
He then offered one of his insights that set us off on a chain of stories.
“There are some things you don’t want to remember,” he said.
“Like what?” I inquired, expecting him to say something like what sausages are made from.
He went for logic.
“If I remembered what I don’t want to remember, then I remember it.”
He smiled waiting for my retort. I didn’t have a good one, but the mood was set and I knew he was warming up.
I had given him a CD of hit songs from 1939. He was 22 that year and had just graduated from college. With the big band sounds of Glenn Miller, followed by the Gene Audrey singing “Home on the Range” as a backdrop, my father talked briefly of the Great Depression; how terrible it was, and how strangers would come to the back door of the house asking for food. They gave what they could. My grandfather was an Episcopal pastor for a church in Sewickley, Pa., and some people must have thought he was an easy touch. As one story goes, Grandpa was on his way home one night when he came to a halt. A rope had been stretched across the road. When he got out, two men approached him and demanded his money. Evidently, my grandfather was enraged – he had a temper – and asked the men why they were resorting to thievery. They told him they were jobless and needed to care for their families. He cooled off with that news and told them to come around to the church the next morning and he would try to find them work, and he did.
The story is one of my father’s chestnuts and I expected him to reel it off, but he didn’t. Instead, I got an insight to Prohibition, which my father declared was just about as stupid as trying to outlaw sex. Apparently, my grandfather didn’t believe in it –Prohibition, not sex – and set up a bar in the basement of the church sanctuary. My father discovered it and, on occasion, would join my grandfather for “communion.”
This was a revelation – a new story in my father’s repertoire.
We sat around the living room coffee table, sipping drinks, eating shrimp and telling more stories.
At one point, my father reached up and rubbed his lower lip. A Band-Aid was between it and his chin. Marge, his loving companion, who is 88 and a former a nurse, had placed it there to stop the bleeding from where he had cut himself shaving.
“What’s this?” he asked, not recalling the cut.
He pulled the Band-Aid off and I placed it in the bowl Marge had thoughtfully provided for the shrimp tails. It looked like one of them.
When Marge joined us, she questioned what had become of the Band-Aid. I pointed to the bowl adding, “It was great with the sauce, too.” The two of us cracked up in one of those absurd scenes where everything got funnier and funnier and nobody else can understand why.
My father sat stoically through our foolishness, not cracking a smile.
But later, after the cake and the ice cream – chocolate, his favorite – he leaned over.
“It’s a lot of fun to turn a normal conversation into nonsense. It’s quite easy to do,” he said.
Perhaps it has something to do with Ground Hog’s Day. Maybe so, but we could use more of it.