A good kind of weird. In a few words if, heaven forbid, I had to be succinct in describing my side of the family, that’s what I’d say. Compared to my husband’s calm composure, anyone with blood ties to my side of the family circle is definitely just a little off center.
“Weird?” my Nana would say when we’d make fun of her. “I’m not sure I like that word. But I guess I’d rather be a nice kind of weird rather than a strange kind of weird.” And then she’d go off to wrap an empty box for Christmas or stand in another room and chuckle at herself. Her good kind of weirdness loudly expressed itself in my dad (AKA “Mac”), the poster child for boisterous, non-politically correct behavior. Then, by the time his DNA met up with my mom’s love for slapstick and spoonerisms (Once apon a time, in a coreign fountry, there lived a very geautiful birl; her name was Rindercella…), the twisted die had been cast for my sister and me.
We grew up thinking humorlessness was a fate worse than death, taking lessons from our patriarch of practical jokes on how to rationalize our irreverent behavior. It was OK if people looked at us askance, as long as they laughed afterward. “Wow…she’s not much fun!” Mac would point out about someone he thought must be “a stick in the mud.” We’d be in church or some other socially constrained place, and he’d zero in on the one or two staid, self-possessed individuals he felt sorry for because they didn’t bust a gut routinely in the course of their day.
Funerals, weddings and similar gatherings where people were supposed to act or speak a certain way really sparked Mac’s desire to be different. “Look at all those people lining up to say exactly what everybody expects them to say,” he’d observe while waiting in a wedding receiving line. “You watch, I’m gonna go up, shake the mother of the bride’s hand and say ‘Too bad your daughter looks like a line backer.’ And without even blinking, she’ll say ‘Oh, thank you…yes, thank you for coming.'” Part of me cringed. But a bigger part of me wanted him to do it so I could watch.
Funerals weren’t sacred for us either. “When my time comes, don’t play this awful sad music,” he’d whisper in the church pew as the grieving procession filed by. “Play The Entertainer! And don’t put me in an open casket where people have to walk past me and say ‘Oh, he looks good’…’cause I won’t look good. I’ll look dead!”
Mac’s time came way too soon. When it did, we were too caught off guard to play The Entertainer at his service. (I’m pretty sure he noticed because, ever since, he’s been blaring that song from every ice cream truck far and wide that’s passed me on its way to sell Good Humor bars.) Slowly, my sister, Jan, and I came to cope without him in the only way we knew how—stifling our sorrow with sarcasm and silliness. It helped a tiny bit, retelling all his old jokes, mimicking his mannerisms. But it was a sad substitute for Mac and how much we missed him bursting into a room, dressed in his trademark red and black hunting shirt, suspenders and khakis, peering over the top of his drugstore glasses and blurting out wise cracks.
Jan and I were six months into our laughing-crying-laughing grieving process when Dr. Smith—old family friend and physician straight out of a Norman Rockewell painting—invited us to his Halloween party. Of course we’d go, we said, despite our mood swings, but what would we wear? After 20 years of gathering in his barn, we had so many special Halloween memories, like the time our parents dressed up as doctor and nurse. Mum was the doctor, complete with chest hair peeking out of her scrub top and Mac was the nurse, wearing a white cap and uniform and the biggest pair of panty hose possible. Since then, we’d shown up at Dr. Smith’s as everything from the Great Pumpkin to Bullwinkle and were now recycling some of those costumes on our own girls. We had bags of silly clothes we could have thrown on just to get in the spirit but, that year, nothing felt quite right.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Jan asked over the phone a couple days before the party. She had the half hesitant, half bubbling over tone I’d come to translate as twisted sister relief. She was about to say and/or do something that only I, her oldest surviving quirky relative, would understand. “Yep,” I admitted, “I think I know what we can be this year for Halloween.”
Our red and black checkered shirts, suspenders and khakis must have looked pretty believable, especially on Jan, who was the spitting image of Mac as she burst into Dr. Smith’s barn, blurting out wise cracks and peering over her drugstore glasses. So what if nothing like that had ever been done before, even on the strangest holiday of the year, Mac would have loved it! He would have gotten a big kick out of the look on everyone’s faces, particularly on poor Edna Smith who looked like she’d seen a ghost. She almost fainted, I think, just before she broke out laughing.
Fast forward 15 years. It’s Halloween weekend and Tom and I are heading down the mountain to go to a wedding. “Well, we know this won’t be the oddest thing I’ve done for Halloween,” I remark. Tom nods with the wisdom of someone who married into my family antics long ago. He might not be able to instigate at the same level, but he plays along the best that he can. Plus he did, of course, have something to do with us having daughters who inherited an unorthodox appreciation for life’s lighter moments. We were attending with Helen—our first-born, named after my Mum—who wears her whackiness like a badge of honor. (She wanted her Aunt Jan to make her a duct tape dress for the prom and, when that didn’t work out, made up for it by wearing a four-foot Goofy hat around Disney World on her senior class trip.) Even dressed up as pirates dripping with booty, we still didn’t out do the bride—Jan’s daughter, Rachael—who sashayed down the aisle in brazen scullery maiden garb to meet her swash buckling new husband, Dave.
I couldn’t help but get sentimental, remembering all those mother-daughter moments my sister and I had shared with our girls—how we’d all giggled together in church and blurted out inappropriate comments at inappropriate times. And the summer Rachael came to camp and won the Rangeley Fuzzy Bunny championship seemed like it was just yesterday. (The title went to the girl who could cram the most marshmallows in her mouth and still say “Fuzzy Bunny.” To this day, she holds the record at 14, and loves to brag about it.)
“You look wonderful,” I told her after the ceremony. “Thank you, Auntie Joy,” she said. “I figured I’d feel ridiculous in a white frilly dress, so I might as well get really ridiculous and have fun with it.” Jan, mother of the bride, was glowing. It wasn’t Rachael’s first time getting married, she pointed out, but this time she’d found a real treasure of a guy who loved her and her good kind of weirdness.
“And she made me promise to bring Grandpa Mac to the wedding,” Jan said, giving a little love pat near her heart where a sprinkling of Mac’s ashes hung from a locket. Yup, he was still with us, all right. We could feel him there as we looked proudly at our Halloween bride and Lady Gaga got the wedding party started. Born this way, I was born this way….I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way!