Cumberland Times-News

Columns

June 15, 2014

She learned to laugh with relatives’ help

— Sometimes there are people in our lives whom we have never credited with all the influence they had on us when we were growing up.And now it is too late to thank them personally. I am about 50 years past due on this one (or two) but maybe somehow, somewhere they will get a hint of it — and — smile. Fondly, I think..

For the three of us (myself and my two older brothers) they were just about the only relatives we knew well. Three out of four grandparents had died before we were born, and the fourth (my mother’s mother) lived proud and free in Florida, which meant we never saw a lot of her on a regular basis. (Although she was the reason we went south every other summer, and you can’t knock that.)

One of our two uncles and his wife (a dear woman) and their son (our only cousin) lived in Florida too, so we also saw them once every other year. And, remember, there was no email in those days and long distance telephone calls were exorbitant, and therefore few and far between. Personal contact basically once every other year did not lead to close relationships although ours were cordial, when we met.

But we were lucky kids, because we had Auntie (my father’s sister) in Johnstown, Pa. and her husband, Harry. We saw them several times a year, basically Thanksgiving at their house, the week after Christmas at ours, after Easter maybe, and one week with them every summer for each one of us.They never had children, but their misfortune was our good luck. We filled in the empty spaces for them. And they happily (or resignedly) became our grandparents.

When we were young their main function in our lives, as we saw it, was to wipe out any kind of a Christmas letdown. Because they always came to visit the day after Christmas. Uncle was, guess, what, a Lutheran minister, and they had to stay home for services, but every year the day after the holiday — unless it was a Sunday — they faithfully arrived on the train with suitcases full of gifts. (No wonder my brothers both turned crazy about trains. Me, I just enjoyed the presents.)

One I still remember was a doll. Now, I never could stand dolls, but this one came with a kicker: a whole little suitcase full of handmade clothes to fit it! (Made by a friend of Auntie’s.) I played with nothing else for two weeks. Then common sense took over and I got back to the books. But I still have that doll complete with wardrobe, and when I see it I can’t help but think of my dear, loving aunt and uncle.

They were an interesting couple. Auntie was tall and spare, and gave the impression of severity. Uncle was short and plump. He had been an outstanding quarterback for whatever passed for football in the early 1900s at Susquehanna University, and was a shortstop (a really short one — and also a good one, I understand) on their baseball team. But he wasn’t tall enough to get into whatever pro ball there was at the time. So he became (of course) a minister.

He was always playing jokes on us and wrote a funny poem every day. (I could kick myself now for not locating these after they died, but I was living my young, most selfish life at the time, and had other things to think about, I thought. Mostly having to do with me, as I look back.)

Uncle loved mild practical jokes. One time, when we arrived to visit, just as we pulled up to the curb in front of the house, Uncle and Auntie made their way across the street staggering theatrically under bags and bags of groceries. It seems he had decided we needed to know how much we ate when we stayed with them, and how much money and effort it cost them.

(And you get the point that Auntie was nowhere near as solemn as she appeared to be.) Sometimes, Uncle and Auntie’s choice of gifts for us kids was probably Mother’s despair. One Easter they brought in some baby chicks for us. I don’t remember what happened to them, but another year they brought two baby rabbits, which we kept quite a while as pets, though one died young. Luckily, there was a farmer in our church who took in the other one when it got too big, and actually kept it in his house, which turned out to be a mistake, as one day someone shut a door on it. Or so we were told. (I would probably rather not have known that.)

Uncle loved to tell jokes, and that got to me somehow. (I’ve told you this before, but here it is again! How did that happen?) Once, when we were all taking a trip in the car together, he started telling jokes and everyone was laughing. I was 7 or 8 and really envied him this accomplishment We passed some cows lying down in a field, and I remembered Mother always said that when cows lie down in a field it’s going to rain. Which it did, right after we passed them. And I said, “Those cows knew what they were lying about.”

Uncle led the laughter, and you have no idea what a good warm feeling I got, for amusing people (mildly) — and still do. And all because Uncle, with Auntie, made humor fun and acceptable. (Even for religious people!)

Something that made life enjoyable.

And blessed.

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