Where did I get my twisted sense of humor? Competitive wisecracking was my family’s favorite game—and survival mechanism.
Wow, was I grateful, after irony was declared dead awhile back that I’d gotten through junior high before it went extinct. Irony, cheap humor, cynicism—how else does anyone survive adolescence? It was how, back in the mid-sixties, my family taught me to survive everything in general but junior high in particular.
Straight out of Catholic schools in San Antonio and Harlingen, I entered public school late in the ninth grade believing that plaid pleated skirts and a Kleenex bobby-pinned to your head were valid fashion statements. Given that the physical education programs back at Holy Name and St. Anthony’s had consisted entirely of genuflecting, my response to the novel experience of finding a spheroid object hurtling at great velocity toward my head was a sensible one: Cover face with both hands and drop to the earth, making sign of the cross and twitching optional. Was I chosen last for every single team? I wish. Invariably, I would be all alone, quarantined on an acre of varnished gym floor while shin-guarded harpies argued about who would be forced to “take Bird.” Or “spaz,” as my chief tormentor, Candy Morthwick, had christened me.
Too timid to beat Candy Morthwick to death with her own field hockey stick, we did what we always did in my family: We made vicious fun of her behind her back. Candy Morthwick became a staple in the rotating cast of characters—the bosses, bullies, and, later, bad boyfriends—we mocked on one another’s behalf.
“What’s new with Fourth Wit?” a brother asked, having turned “Morthwick” into “Fourth Wit,” half of a half-wit.
My father joined the dog pile with “How was the Chromosome Case today? Did you compliment Svetlana on the pencil-thin mustache?” In his version of my nemesis, Candy was a Russian shot-putter who shaved twice a day. Every evening he had new styling suggestions for me to offer her: muttonchops, a goatee, the Vandyke. Somehow, imagining the girl who called me “spaz” with a pencil-thin mustache did help to take the sting out.
Humor was the one game we all knew how to play. Puerile, scatological, wildly inappropriate, it buffered our Air Force family of eight during years of constant moving, of forever being the new girl, the new boy. My father set the tone for the game, but my mother, a former Army nurse, awarded the prize. Six children, always starved for attention, we baby birds killed ourselves for the big worm: her laugh. That laugh was Johnny Carson inviting you to sit on the couch.
By the early seventies, we all knew the game pretty well, and late at night we’d gather in the kitchen and play. The double-jointed brother, feet pretzeled behind his head, would be perched on the counter on his hands. I’d be reliving the moment earlier that evening when my “dream date” had shown me his army of perfectly painted Napoleonic toy soldiers, which I could look at but he’d prefer I not touch. Another brother would appear, years before John Belushi, hair in a ponytail on top of his head, as the Samurai Used Car Salesman, ready to commit ritual seppuku to close a deal. Someone else would be simulating copulation with my mom’s papier-mâché pig from Laredo. You could always get a laugh from Nurse Bird with an amorous interlude with the pig, since she loved the naughty jokes best.
A cardinal rule of the game was Never Give a Straight Answer. No matter what the question, several joke answers were mandatory, but the first one was always the most important. Like your dog bowing down with his butt in the air and his head on his paw, it was the one that said, “Let’s play.” If, for example, you were foolhardy enough to ask what time it was, the answers might range from “Time to get right with the Lord” to “Time for you, Sarah Bird, to make something of your pathetic sham of an existence.”
Last Christmas, my siblings and our families decided to gather in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. Why? Let’s just say that Catholics believe that suffering on this earth shaves time off your sentence in purgatory, heaven’s waiting room. And that suffering while waiting three hours with a $5 beer in your hand for a four-minute ride on Buzz Lightyear’s Carousel of Reverse Peristalsis counts triple.
Holiday gatherings are hard. Once a year, families try to fit back together the puzzle of lives that had once been joined, but the pieces have swollen over time with new families, new lives, new jokes. It was our first Christmas without our parents, and it threatened to be more difficult than usual. As we all tried to squeeze into places that had gotten too small or never really fit, it seemed that humor was a song whose tune we’d forgotten.
Falling back on small talk one afternoon as we stumbled through a tour of NASA, I asked my sisters, who live in New Mexico, if they could think of any good activities to occupy my fifteen-year-old son when we visited this summer. They appeared to seriously consider the question, in a cordial yet distant way, until one kicked off with “Oh, well, naturally he’ll want to go out antiquing every day with his aunts.”
My other sister threw down with “Sarah, what fifteen-year-old boy wouldn’t adore ice-dancing camp?”
Just about this time, we found ourselves in front of a case containing a moon rock. My youngest sister squinched up her face, pretended to suck on a Virginia Slim, then rasped, “Moon rock, schmoon rock. That Buzz Aldrin, baby, he rocked my moon!” That was it. For the rest of the tour we were all chain-smoking, geriatric astronaut groupies recalling “missions completed” with Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, and, ho boy, don’t get me started on “liftoff” with Johnny Glenn.
Later that evening, as we piloted our rented minivan back to Mickey’s Maingate Manor, I looked at my son, regretting that, as an only child, he’d never had a pack of siblings to play this humor game with. Then, with hunger and grumpiness setting in, we realized we were lost, that Orlando was a Disney-drenched maze of one Mickey-themed business after another. The mood turned surly.
“Hey,” my son said, breaking the testy silence. “Shouldn’t you have turned back there at Mickey’s Vasectomy Reversal?” There it was, popping up like some recessive gene. Without ever being taught, my son knew how to play and was tossing out the first ball.
His uncle batted it right back. “No, the turn is up there at Mickey’s Tattoo Removal.”
“Uh-uh,” an aunt disagreed. “We’re looking for Mickey’s Lasik Eye Surgery.”
“No, no,” my son said, “there it is, Mickey’s Gentleman’s Adventure.”
The naughty one. Nurse Bird would have laughed.