February 10, 2015 § 3 Comments
My grandma, Carol Van Deusen, passed away last week, so I want to share some of my favorite memories of her, and this blog seems like the right place for several reasons: first, I learned the value of a sense of humor from her (and my mother, who learned it from her), so these anecdotes are definitely on-topic for The Oldest Jokes in the World; second, they are too crass for a eulogy, so where the hell else am I going to share them?
My grandma traveled up to Canada to visit a few times when I was young, but it was only once I was seven, when we moved to Minnesota to be closer to my mom’s family after my dad died, that I came to spend time enough with her to know who she was besides my mom’s mom. We moved in with her for the summer and, while my mom was out job- and house-hunting, Grandma watched and entertained my brother and me.
And we needed entertainment: still devastated from losing our father, we were confused and afraid, not knowing what it really meant; and as we gradually figured it out, each new revelation was a fresh source of anxiety, grief, or anger; and then on top of it all, we moved to America, which seemed like a louder, meaner version of Canada, all the worse because it was away from every memory we had of our father.
So my grandma taught us German curses while we played board games. She must have learned them from her German-speaking parents, cursing in earnest at their own card games, but we learned to do it in jest. Whenever something bad happened to her in the game, she’d cuss with glee. A favorite was “shist auf der loof,” which I’m sure, if I’m even remembering it perfectly, isn’t proper German. Regardless, we were told it meant “poo on the roof”—a phrase whose meaning is every bit as obvious and mysterious to me today as it was then. My grandma made it clear that saying it was the funest way to lose, though, so soon we were joining in and learning new ones for variety. Being boys, “schwantz”—meaning penis, or as we said then “wiener” or “goo goo”—was soon our favorite, and it quickly became family tradition to say it, not when loosing, but before every dice roll for good luck.
When I think of why I love my grandma, past the general reasons we all love our grandmas, I think of that transformation: back then I was so scared of life that I used to stay awake in bed for as long as I could, as silently as I could, listening to my heartbeat so that, if it stopped, I could tell my mom before I died; but while with grandma, I was jumping out of my chair to joyfully scream German penis at the top of my lungs.
I’m sure that is where I learned to joke my way through tough times, an instinct that has helped me ever since. So as things got harder for my grandma with age, it was heartening to see that she always held on to her humor. Even this last Thanksgiving, when getting around was becoming more and more difficult, painful, and exhausting, she had us all laughing on several occasions. Carol had always been proficient with non sequiturs, so it was sometimes hard over the past few years to tell if she was changing the subject to be funny, because she couldn’t hear what was just said, or if she’d just gotten bored of sober conversation. Regardless of why, as conversation flagged towards the end of dessert, she announced to the whole room: “I have a confession to make.”
We all stopped to listen, and she started telling a story about a night shift she’d once worked in the hospital. She’d been a nurse her whole life, but this took place back when she was still a young woman. Mr. Wilkinson, one of her patients, however, was old.
“Oh Lord, he was old,” she explained. “Old as dirt: he was older than I am now. So old he could hardly do anything. Couldn’t walk around, or push his own wheel chair, couldn’t even sit up in bed without some help. He was old, old, old—but at night, he slept as a young man…”
I think we were all a little confused by this turn of phrase, but a mischievous glimmer in her eyes gave me a clue as to what it might mean. Still, I could barely believe she was talking about what I thought she was talking about, even as she continued.
“Every night, making the rounds, I’d walk by his room to check on him, and there old Mr. Wilkinson would be: sleeping as a young man. All us nurses joked about it. It was terrible, one of those things you didn’t want to look at but couldn’t help it: there he was, every night, tenting the sheet.”
She was! She was talking about Mr. Wilkinson’s schwantz!
“And then one night, it was worse than ever before. It had tipped the sheet onto the floor and even parted his gown. And I couldn’t help it: I ran out to the break room, peeled a sticker off a Chiquita banana, and snuck back into his room to put it on him. Then I told Eileen to go check on Mr. Wilkinson. She laughed so hard she could barely make it out of the room before she doubled over onto the floor.”
In addition to raising some fine jokers, Carol raised some incredible health care professionals, so there was a bit of an outcry in the family about losing your license for playing the same prank today, but I just laughed. Or laughed and thought, as I usually do, about why we joke. This wasn’t just some crass anecdote, but a chance to talk about what we were all afraid to talk about, a way to simultaneously look at and let go of that which had been haunting the whole evening: the pains and humiliations of aging.
Whether you’re missing your dad or worried about your health, while laughing, all your sufferings and anxieties are briefly obliterated. Joking is a way for us to look at what we don’t want to see but know we can’t ignore; it is a way to put a bright sticker on the wrinkled schwantz we have to stare down every night. Joking keeps us whole. So thank you, Grandma, for teaching me how.
Through nearly a century of loss, pain, disappointment, and conflict, Carol Mae managed to not just keep a smile on her face, but put one on the faces of nearly everyone she met. So, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, I’ll end by saying that though she is now at rest, I know she rests as a young woman: full of love, hope, compassion, and mischief.
*For another remembrance of this lovely woman who touched so many people’s lives, read my cousin, Toussaint Morrison’s beautiful essay on his blog.
**A brief search of the internet has made me question whether the curses discussed are actually German. Maybe I am remembering/spelling them wrong, or maybe Carol, not wanting to actually teach us to curse, made up nonsense words? Any insight from foul-mouthed Germans would be greatly appreciated.