I come from a family of writers. Preachers who write sermons. Pranksters who crack jokes. Poets who compose verse. Pickers who compose lyrics. Patriarchs who spin yarns. All my family members carried a pencil in their hands, music in their mouths, or their next wisecrack chambered for an approaching victim. They were (and are) linguistic acrobats – brilliantly witty and deeply profound. I come from them. I write by their example. I know nothing else to do.
Thanksgiving was my favorite time. My parents and I would make the annual drive over the river and through the woods to my matriarchal grandparents’ house where we would gather with my mother’s six siblings and their children. For me, the visit was not about the huge meal, spread wide and generously on my grandmother’s dining room table. It wasn’t much about meeting the new babies, and it was only a little bit about the gifts we would exchange after dinner, when we quickly transitioned the holiday over to Christmas with some tree-trimming before my grandparents’ journey south to their winter home in Florida. For me, it was all about the humor. You see, my mother had five brothers and when they began reminiscing with my father, who married into the brood at a young age, the storytelling, the irreverence, and the … “education” I enjoyed as a young listener affected me intensely. Their tales, their style, their gift for exaggeration and understatement … this and so much more influenced me to love language in a way that I will never be able to remove from myself.
I think my uncle taught me first, but only by example. He didn’t mean to do it. There was something in the way he related to others – something in the greeting. Something charismatic and engaging. Something quick. I wanted to keep up with him, but when I was a child it was hard. (Even as an adult, when my sharp wit was well-trained and capable, I still couldn’t defeat him in our verbal sparring matches. Not even at our last one, which occurred in the days before his death.) When one approached my uncle for a “hello,” one must be prepared to run a course of witticisms. Small talk with him was more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. When I was younger, I would walk right into his pranks by responding incorrectly to his “set-ups.” This is what he wanted – to see my face blush, to watch my eyes roll, to muss my hair and “Heh heh heh. Got you.” Soon I learned to be more clever as I engaged in the challenge of his chit chat. Still, he was moves ahead of me. Wiser. Wittier.
It took years to learn the strategies to anticipate his jabs, to deflect his verbal punches, and to land a proper rebuttal on his chin, and though I never perfected my craft, I improved and became, he admitted at the very end, a worthy opponent.