A personal take on why memoirs matter

My dad was a great joke teller.  He had a seemingly inexhaustible inventory, in part, as I learned after he died, because he collected them on 3×5 cards that he put into a little metal box just like the one where my mom kept her recipes.   His cards were recipes for laughter.   

There were more than 300 entries, both handwritten and typed, arranged under headings that included “farmers” – he lived in Iowa,  “traveling salesmen” – he ran a drug store, and “Czechkie,” the Iowa version of Polish jokes.  There were ethno-geographical headings including Irish, Italian, and Jewish, as well as a mysterious label that read “???????.”  Those turned out to be jokes in questionable taste.  They weren’t really dirty, especially by modern standards, but back in the Eisenhower era, they would have been out of bounds in mixed company.  I never heard him tell any of them.

Because my dad lived most of his life, or at least his joke telling life before the age of political correctness, he told a lot of ethnic jokes, which meant he told a lot of jokes using an accent.  He did this with varying degrees of success –his Englishmen were decent, his Frenchmen were lousy – but he did eastern Europeans especially well, probably because he had a lot of nearby role models to learn from.  There were a lot of Czech farmers who lived in the little town of Solon, about ten miles away, and a lot of them were customers at my dad’s drug store.  Even after decades in America, they spoke with thick accents and my dad could sound just like them. 

When he got older and retired from the drug store, he stopped adding to his inventory and we started hearing the same jokes over and over, but that was okay because after so many years, they’d become polished gems.  His timing was flawless and somehow, the anticipation of hearing the punch lines you knew were coming only added to the pleasure.

For years, I kept telling myself that I should write down his best stories, or better yet, get them on tape.  It would have been so easy and even though he might have been a bit nervous at first, pretty soon he would have relaxed and let it flow.  And I would have all those stories.  But I don’t because when he was in his 80’s, my dad’s memory started to disappear.  Though he was still physically healthy, his dementia accelerated rapidly and within a few months, all the jokes were gone, along with hundreds of other stories and anecdotes from what was a quietly remarkable life. 

Coulda.  Woulda.  And especially shoulda.  I can still hear some of the punch lines – “Officer, if I told you, you’d never believe me” – but no one else ever will.  And that’s a true shame.  Because my dad was a great joke teller.

 

December 12, 2017

 

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