My parents met-cute when my dad showed up at my mother's house a day early for a party. My mother was in the middle of cleaning up her apartment when she heard a knock on the door. She opened it to find a short, dark-haired man who thought he had arrived right on time for a fun get-together. While sorting through the mix-up, my father made my mother laugh so much that she agreed to go out for a drink with him that night.
Knowing my dad, he probably riffed on how elegant my mother's rubber gloves were or maybe he pretended that he had the right date and how this was the first party he'd ever been to where the hostess made the guests do all the cleaning.
My father had fixed a potentially awkward situation by being funny—a neat trick he would use throughout his life.
And one that he passed on to me, along with his anxiety. Luckily, one helps me deal with the other. I've always used humor—particularly in rough times—to help alleviate some of the pain.
I was 8 when my grandparents passed away, and my father was an only child, so I have no idea if anyone on my paternal side of the family was funny. However, my mother said that my dad had a couple of uncles who toured the Austrian/German vaudeville circuit, so perhaps that's where our sense of humor comes from.
When I was growing up, I had no idea that my father and his parents had fled Nazi Austria for China and had lived in the Jewish ghetto of Shanghai for five years. We lived in suburban San Jose in a two-story house with a backyard filled with fruit trees. He didn't talk about his time in China; instead, he'd tell me stories about a fictional girl named Prunella Smith and her family—who were the bizarro version of us. Prunella Smith got straight A's, never talked in class and always did her chores without argument. Oh, how I hated perfect Prunella and her family.
These stories were my first taste of parody and satire, though I didn't know it.
My brother was eight years older than me and left home early, so often it was just my father, mother and me. By the time I was in junior high, my parent's marriage had started to fray (they'd get divorced when I was in college), and dinner could be a tense affair with me or my father working hard to fill my mother's cold silence. To break the tension, my father would perform his own original comic characters.
"I'd like to talk to the chef," my dad would say, and run into the kitchen, put a "chef's hat" (aka a paper bag) on his head, then come back into the dining room to describe the specialty of the house, which was usually schnitzel or goulash. For another character, he'd put a towel over his arm and become both the beleaguered wine steward and his tyrannical boss, switching between the two as they argued.
"You call this slop wine?" the cruel lord of the manor would say.
"It's from your private cellar, my lord," the manservant would respond in a trembling voice.
After this exchange, my dad would act out the two characters fighting each other while my mother and I would break into laughter. My favorite characters of his were ones that had an element of real life in them, such as Shony, the only used car salesman who didn't drive. My dad worked for Dole Pineapple (not a car dealership), but there was an element of sales with his job that he mined for comic gold.
When I'd go away to summer camp, my father would send me short, funny letters describing how he was a soft touch (he could never say no to me) and how it made no sense that he was sending me money when he had done all my chores himself.
I also remember the fun of watching TV shows with him. Even though I didn't understand why he thought "The Honeymooners" and "Hogan's Heroes" (he did a hilarious impression of Colonel Klink) were particularly funny, I just enjoyed sitting there and listening to him laugh.
He always made me laugh, no matter the circumstances. I cracked my knee open when I was a teenager and recall limping home, going into the bathroom and staring at the bloody mess. When my mother asked me what had happened, I passed out.
Perhaps it was because they didn't drive or maybe my knee didn't seem so bad to them, but my parents waited until the next morning to take me to the doctor. Instead, they gave me some aspirin while my dad provided comedic relief. It's funny how I remember that night more for laughing my head off rather than the pain in my messed-up knee.
My father was about a month shy of his 68th birthday when he had a heart attack and died while walking through a sporting goods store. There was nothing funny about his death, but I knew that he wouldn't want a funeral that was such a downer, so in my eulogy, I used some of his gentle humor.
I talked about his eccentric movie rating system (if he could take the bus there, get some popcorn and use his senior citizen discount, it was a good film), and how, when he had come to this country, he had been enraged because Customs wouldn't let him bring in the massive sausage he had brought with him all the way from Austria. He might not have ever spoken of what he had gone through with the Nazis, but he went on about that sausage throughout the years, convinced that Customs agents had enjoyed a fine meal at his expense.
My eulogy wasn't exactly a stand-up set, but it got a fair number of laughs and I think it made everybody feel a little better, which is just the way my father would have wanted it.