Home is Where the Mirth Is
The mushroom cloud caused by my Uncle Loo’s wrath hung in the taut atmosphere. We heard the front door slam, his truck motor rev, flying gravel ping on the windows as he careened away from the farmhouse. My aunt had devoted hours and years turning the small living room where we sat into a haven in the old place out in the Ohio hills. The family feared my uncle’s temper, although this time marked the first he had lost control in front of witnesses. My eyes furtively darted from imagined x-ray pictures engraved on the creamy tan walls: my aunt’s ravaged face, my father’s body poised to act in protection of his sister, the kids’ stunned paralysis. Silence lie in the wake of his destructive, vile words.
Then, my cousin Judy, strutted across the room perfectly mimicking her father’s demeanor. She threw herself into his chair, picked up his still-smoking cigar. “Well, Woman,” she sneered in her father’s demanding tones, “A hot chocolate: now! I want three marshmallows in it. Make it snappy. I ain’t got all day.”
A second of suspended silence reigned; then we burst into various forms of hilarity. My aunt buried her face in a pillow; every now and then a shriek of laughter emerged and re-ignited our own. My mother held her ribs and wiped her eyes; Judy, unrepentant, just grinned. She had neutralized Ground Zero. Laughter defused the bomb of unreasonable anger and abuse. We no longer sat in the remains of a personal Hiroshima, but in a home filled with support, love, and laughter despite faint lingering radiation. My aunt spent most of her married life trying to make a safe home; I think she succeeded mostly, for all of her kids can laugh.
Like my cousins’, my early home demanded certain virtues, qualities, and jury rigging some vices for survival. I coped with hard work, little money, abuse, and emotional neglect. I did more than cope: I triumphed. I prevailed because I learned, just as Judy had, that laughter and parody often made situations fraught with terror, bearable. I learned the gift of storytelling heavily imbued with laughter in that painful childhood. I have heard psychologists list the roles family members assume when their lives present problems. The Enabler, most people recognize, as well as the Baby and the Rebel. Many dysfunctional families have a Clown—the person who can defuse situations by telling a joke or mimicking the bad behavior of others as my cousin Judy had done. Although I dislike clowns and am afraid of their freaky big shoes, I see myself in that role. I learned it early and have honed it through the years.
In many ways, a well told story, laced with a willingness to laugh at myself enabled me to tolerate the experiences life dealt an Air Force wife whose house changed frequently, with no extended family nearby.
My only constant home dwells within in the form of remembered stories and laughter. After a move to a new assignment, household goods lagged months behind, or sat ruined in flooded warehouses. Picture albums, journals, diaries, scrapbooks disappeared. But because I had learned from masters, I can give multiple generations instant recall of the Cliff M Biram, Jr. home as it made its way geographically and historically around the world. My father taught me the trick of a well-crafted tale that painted time, place, personality and detail.
At supper, Dad usually had a “story.” He led a colorful life working the boilers in a steel mill. Part of his job dealt with the river coal barges pulling in to the mill docks to off load tons of coal. At least one man from the boiler house had to oversee this tricky maneuver. One very cold winter’s day, “George the Greek” (in Dad’s world few men had last names) got confused and did not get off the barge in time; he ended up getting a free return trip the next day on a freezing boat. My father never let a good joke die a natural death. For months, whenever a shipment of coal docked, Dad yelled, “Hey, George! Is that your boat?”
“Brownie, that’s not my boats!”
Weeks later: “Hey, George! That your boat?”
Finally, George-the-Greek reached the end of his tether and shouted, “Brownie!! What you tink? Ev’ry boats MY boats?”
Dad told us stories of his childhood; we’d heard them so often, we could recite them with him, what ADVENTURES! Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn seem like choir boys compared to the harrowing tales of the nine-year-old orphan. When I think of Dad’s stories now, of sleeping in hay rows in the summer, of fighting with his aunt’s kids for a place to sleep in the winters, of the kindness of farmers barely making it during the Great Depression as they let him work summers, then supplied him with a set of clothes and shoes to start school, I hear the longing of a little boy wanting a home again: a mom, a dad, his sisters and brother living with him. I also realize most of them were not funny if I thought about them. Since he didn’t have that family, he carried home within himself, and shared it with anyone who wished to listen. He possessed the magnificent ability of making himself the butt of jokes; I learned the craft from him.
Our hard, painful home still had more laughter than tears. We stored memories in our oft-told tales. One of the early memories I have of my serious, calm older sister is a neighbor pounding on the backdoor, “Mr. Brown, come quick! Angel’s about to kill Archie!”
A pick-up game of baseball had turned ugly when the Neighborhood Nuisance made the mistake of taunting Angel when she was a bat. She tackled the blithering idiot, known by Mr. Wick, from up the road, as “Whistlin’ Pete from Down the Street” because Archie whistle incessantly. That day, my sister knocked him into a ditch and prepared to whale on him with her bat until Dad intervened. She swears forty-odd years later,”I would have killed him, but Dad spoiled my aim. There’s not a court in Jefferson County that would have found me guilty, either.” Clearly, no one messed with Angel and baseball. Recently, I recounted this story on Facebook and my cousin responded, “Didn’t everyone try to kill Archie at one time or another?”
Cliff’s first assignment, Keesler Air Force Base, situated on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, sweltered in the Deep South. I learned the truth of Air Force life: I kept the home fires burning; Cliff saw the world. I soon found keeping busy helped. Remembering the funny times enabled me to bring this odd home to a distant family, and to help Cliff not feel guilty about my being alone so often.
I sang with “The Skylarks”, a women’s singing group sponsored by the base. The quartet in which I sang occasionally answered calls for a small group than our normal twenty-five voices. The four of us donned the obnoxiously sky blue, maxi dresses with butterfly sleeves, huge bows at the waist at the back, big hair, and just so make-up. We definitely stood out in any crowd. After one such gig, we treated ourselves to lunch at the Hilton Garden Room on the beach. We talked a mile a minute discussing our performance, laughing manically, high on performance adrenaline and good wine.
A police officer stopped at our table, rocking on his high heeled cowboy boots, apparently squinting down at us, taking close note of every detail, our meals, wine glasses, high color. He typified every stereotype I’d ever seen of a southern cop. His big belly hung over his gun belt; his Ray-Ban sunglasses glinted, disguising his eyes; he even had a toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. The four of us grew silent. Then Jane, a prim woman from Massachusetts, who feared no one asked in prissy New England tones, “Is there a problem, sir?”
He studied us a moment longer, then drawled, deep, deep south heavy in every syllable, “Ya know: ya’ll ahr dresst awlike.”
I stuffed a roll in my mouth and pretended to choke to hide my hilarity. Bonnie made no pretense, a confident Major’s wife, she asked sarcastically, “What was your first clue?”
Diane, our alto, pinched Bonnie, who glared at her. He tilted his head and said slowly, “Why—ya’ll have blue dresses on. Ah noticed right off. Have a nice day, ya’ll heah?”
Stunned, then helpless with laughter, we looked as if we’d had far more to drink than we had. Whenever I think of Biloxi, I think of the observant policeman, and worry, a lot! My family in Ohio howled as I retold the story complete with all the accents, and felt relief that I knew friendship and well-being despite Cliff’s absences.
Our tour of England deserves a book all of its own. The stories of the Yanks in the neighborhood still circulate, thirty years later. No one in Ohio could quite comprehend how small our bungalow was until we described a pizza party we held for the church youth group. We realized, even after putting salad, cold drinks, desserts and pizza out buffet style in the kitchen, people could come in and get their food, but had no room to turn around and get back to the living area to sit and eat. So, Cliff opened the kitchen door and the front door; the kids filled their plates, left by the kitchen door, walked around the house, re-entered through the front door, to get to the sitting room. After a while, we began to check and make sure we weren’t picking up people wandering home from the pub who just joined the queue because it was there. When we go back and visit England, that story inevitably resurrects itself—and we know we are still home.
Remembering our sons’ childhoods has become extremely important as they reach their thirties and many photo albums and video tapes disintegrated during the Mississippi River’s heavy flooding in 1995. Our eldest, Cliff, III (aka Kippy during early childhood and to me, still), born in 1976, served with Mum for two years in Biloxi, so we became best buddies. I talked to him all the time, much as if he were an adult, seeing no reason to demean him or myself with baby talk. As he began stringing sounds together, he sounded as if he were trying to make real words. He’d wave his arms vehemently, holding on to the sides of his playpen. I called them his baby-power speeches.
I assured his father and doting grandparents that Kippy demanded, “Two strollers in every garage. Grape juice in every other bottle. Wet diapers for no longer than two seconds! Babies have rights, too!”
His vocabulary developed precociously. My best friend visited with my folks just before Kippy and I joined them. Cathy confided that Mom told her Cliff and I used such big words with Kippy, he didn’t understand what we were saying!
I looked at my two-year-old son and asked: “Kippy, do I use big words when I talk to you?”
He frowned a bit and answered, “Not particularly large ones, no.”
He didn’t communicate quite so well on his first day at playgroup in England, though. When I went to fetch him, he wore unfamiliar clothes. When I asked why, his teacher said, “Well, he had a bit of an accident, you see, and wet his trousers.”
“Yes, but it was ever so peculiar. He kept asking about a pahty—I told him we weren’t having a pahty today.”
I had to laugh, but Kippy and I practiced, “I need the LOO,” for the next three days; obviously the British didn’t ask for the potty.
Blessed Paul, our son with learning disabilities, developmental delays and other issues arising from a problem pregnancy and heredity, has created his own history within our home. Although he didn’t speak until well passed four years of age, he could hum any tune he heard. He crawled at light speed and had an infectious chuckle that made everyone smile. Cliff and I were reading in the sitting room when we heard the Star Wars theme. “Is that Kippy?” I asked, knowing his enthrallment with all things Jedi.
Cliff said, “I don’t think so…” then we heard Paul’s contagious chuckle. We peered out into the hallway and there he sat, holding a Darth Vader action figure, looking very pleased with himself. His brother’s shriek of anger assured us that Paul had made a fast, if not a silent get away.
Now years later, when we four get together three or four times a year, Cliff and I listen to Kippy and Paul’s stories as we continue to keep our home together despite living hundreds of miles apart. As a videographer who films depositions for law firms, Kip has fascinating stories; and he’s a natural storyteller with the ability to produce dead-on accents. We love his Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery imitations which he’ll use for certain attorneys, or his perfect New York fast talking illiterates. Paul’s natural mimicry of his friends and take on politics, music, and the weird world of on-line gaming keep us roaring.
Just this recently I got back to North Carolina after a week in our childhood stomping grounds in Ohio. We visited with elderly relatives and reminded them of times they’d spent visiting us at our various bases. Their eyes lit up and they smiled—“I remember that!” We all had visited home again, without leaving their care facilities, laughing gently together at what we shared within.