Occasionally I hear from friends and family who have read my latest blog: “You sure had a laugh at someone else’s expense, Mike. But can you turn your humor inward and laugh at yourself?”
I will admit up front that it is far easier to laugh at the foibles of other people than at one’s own silliness. Nonetheless, from time to time I can turn my gaze inward.
In this blog, I want to recount two episodes where I was the butt of the joke. Both events involved a grandparent, although the scenes were separated by more than 20 years.
The first incident happened when I was a young child. If family lore is to be believed — and given my family’s propensity to embellish a tale, factual accuracy is by no means a foregone conclusion — the incident occurred in 1967, when I was four years old. I have no memory of the scenario, so I must recount what I have been told.
The second incident occurred in 1989, when I was 26 years old. I remember it vividly. If I can be considered a faithful correspondent, I can vouch for the veracity of the account.
Episode 1: Granddaddy — Did You Hear Me?
My mother and I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, when I was four years old. Because we lived near the beach, she often took me there to enjoy the sand and surf. In November 1967, six weeks before my fifth birthday, mom and family friend Bob Williamson transported me to the beach at Sullivan’s Island on a blustery autumn afternoon.
This photograph of me dates from 1967.
As children often do, I grew bored easily. After a few minutes of strolling on the beach while I listened to Bob and mom discuss politics, I badgered them to take me swimming.
“You can’t go swimming, Michael. The water is too cold,” mom admonished me repeatedly.
Still, I would not shut up. I have always been a persistent nag.
Bob must have grown tired of my whining because eventually he grabbed me by the arm. Leaning down so we were eye-to-eye, he said, in a loud voice, “Don’t ask again. You can’t go swimming, Michael.”
“It’s too cold.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes. It. Is.”
He grimaced. “Look, here, boy: If you go in that water when it’s cold outside, you’ll freeze your penis off.”
Mom heard what he said and laughed. His comment did not strike her as funny. It was my reaction that tickled her so. According to mom’s later account, my eyes grew wide and my mouth dropped open in an “O” of surprise. Apparently, I understood what a penis was and I was not enamored of having mine freeze off.
The conversation ended abruptly. I did not ask to go swimming again for the rest of the day. The warning had achieved its intended purpose.
The incident was promptly forgotten — until two weeks later.
In late November, Mom drove the two of us up to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with my grandparents in Florence, South Carolina, 110 miles from our apartment.
My grandfather was a stern man from the Old South. Born into a country family in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1900, he was straight-laced and decidedly “old school.” “Yes, sir” and “no, sir” were expected responses in any conversation. No hippie music and alternative lifestyles for Bob Mellette. No profanity, long hair, Vietnam War-bashing, or feminist politics were allowed at his table. Check your eccentric, radical proclivities at the doorstep. East was east, west was west, and never the twain shall meet.
I adored my grandfather and, by all accounts, he reciprocated. For all of his conservative, buttoned-down ways, he enjoyed the company of his grandchildren. It was little wonder that when our dozen or so relatives gathered at the dining room table on Thanksgiving Day that I would ask to sit next to him as he carved the turkey.
This is a photograph of granddaddy and me, Christmas 1968.
My mother, seated across the table, nodded her assent when I sought permission. No doubt she felt relief at not having to sit next to a wiggling, fidgety, squirming, restless, constantly-chattering child throughout the meal.
The conviviality flowed like wine. Everyone laughed and talked as they stuffed themselves with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, peas, yams, cranberry sauce, rolls, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and sweetened iced tea. It was a pleasant holiday filled with warmth and good humor — until the voice of a child could be heard above the din.
Someone had mentioned that it sure was cold outside.
This casual remark triggered a chain reaction. “Hey, granddaddy,” I called in my outside voice. “You can’t go swimming today.”
He frowned. Granddaddy’s house was not located anywhere near a body of water. No one had talked about going swimming, anyway.
“Do you know why you can’t go swimming today, granddaddy?”
“Okay, Michael. Why can’t I go swimming today?” He was ready to play along and see where the odd conversation was headed.
“Because it’s cold outside.”
Across the table, my mother’s eyes grew wide. Interior alarm bells erupted like a fire bell clanging in the night.
He nodded.” Yes, Michael, it is cold outside.”
“Michael,” she called out. “Don’t bother granddaddy at the table.”
“I’m not bothering granddaddy.”
He laughed, confirming my observation. “He’s fine, Laura.”
“No, he’s not,” she insisted.
“So, do you want to know why you can’t go swimming today, granddaddy?”
“Because it’s cold outside.”
“And you know what happens when you go swimming when it’s cold outside?”
Gasping for air, mom rose from her chair and rushed as fast as she could around the table to where I sat. All conversation — other than mine — ceased while our relatives observed the strange scene unfolding before their eyes.
Mom’s protests filled the room: “Wait, wait, wait!”
“If you go in that water when it’s cold outside, you’ll freeze your penis off, granddaddy.”
The room fell completely silent except for the sounds of utensils being dropped on plates and the click-clack of my mother’s heels on the hardwood floor.
“Grandaddy! Did you hear what I said? If you go in the water when it’s cold outside, you’ll FREEZE YOUR PENIS OFF!”
Grandaddy struggled to swallow the mashed potatoes clogged in his throat. “I heard you. I heard you.”
Mom scooped me out of the chair and headed away from the assemblage. Even as she covered my mouth with her hand, I managed to fire off a farewell volley: “YOUR PENIS WILL FREEZE OFF, GRANDADDY. DID YOU HEAR ME? YOUR PENIS WILL FREEZE OFF!”
“I heard you. I heard you.”
Episode 2: Don’t Go Hittin’ On My Other Friends
My grandfather died of lung cancer on May 18, 1969. In 1975, his widow, my grandmother Eloise, remarried. By the way, everyone called her “Weeze” because “Eloise” was too difficult for children to pronounce and she had never wanted to be known as “grandmamma” or some variant thereof.
Weeze and her new husband, Louis Parks, moved to Florida in 1978. She was 69 years old at the time. I think there’s an unwritten law requiring a person to decamp for the sunshine state when 70 is visible on the horizon.
This photograph of Weeze and Louis dates from the 1980s.
During the fall of 1989, when I was 26 years old, I had to attend a business meeting at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Because I would be less than 100 miles away from Weeze and Louis’s house, I added an extra day to my itinerary and arranged to stop in for a visit.
At the time, Louis was in the hospital, gravely ill. He died of cancer a couple of months after my trip.
Fearful that Weeze would be sad and depressed with her husband wasting away in the hospital, I resolved to keep the visit light and pleasant. My grandmother occasionally grated on my nerves, as older relatives tend to do when we are young and impatient, but I was determined to grit my teeth and take whatever aggravation I felt with as much grace as I could muster.
My cousin, Walter, had visited recently. Weeze had taken him on the rounds to meet her friends. They had been enamored of her witty, urbane, Yale-educated grandson. Anxious to enjoy a second dose of reflected glory, Weeze told me that we would travel to an assisted living facility to visit with a couple she knew. They had been impressed with Walter, so perhaps I could serve as a surrogate — a pale substitute, to be sure, but better than nothing.
“Oh,” she said. “Just so you know. They are both in their nineties.”
I wasn’t sure I had heard the comment correctly. “In their nineties? They’re 90 years old?”
“Well, actually, he’s 98 years old, but she’s only 95.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I have never heard the word ‘only’ applied to someone who is 95 years old.”
“They’re very robust, Mike.”
“Just staying vertical at that age makes them robust.”
“Don’t be ugly.”
It sounded as though it would be a raucous, wild, rock-‘n-roll affair. How could I refuse?
Weeze drove us to the assisted living facility in her gigantic, aging Chrysler. It was a rusting behemoth that rode low to the ground and advertised one of two messages: Either its owner was an octogenarian who loved the fin-tailed automobiles of a long-gone era or a hip hop artist who was deliberately slumming to bolster his street cred. Although Weeze and Louis once had mistakenly wandered into the audience at the local multiplex to see the movie Breakin’ — a film about break dancing aimed at the young, urban, black demographic — I suspected the former explanation was the most likely reason she had retained the monstrosity on wheels.
I will never forget that harrowing journey. Weeze was so engaged in the conversation she barely kept her eyes on the road. Nervously watching cars whiz past us as we accelerated to almost 30 miles per hour, I clawed at the armrest and repeatedly checked my seatbelt. Apparently oblivious to my discomfort, Weeze weaved the boat in and out of her lane. Blaring horns and middle-finger gestures accompanied us throughout the 17-minute thrill ride. My driver seemed not to notice or to care.
When we arrived at our destination and were safely parked on the curb, we alighted to find an elevator to the sixth floor of the high-rise old folks’ home.
“Now, Mike,” she admonished me. “Be sure to tell them how good they look. They’re very self-conscious. She’s especially worried that her hair is falling out.”
“She’s 95. She’s lucky to have any hair at all.”
“I think you’ll find they look good for their ages — although he’s a little thin.”
A little thin? Oh. My. God. When the door swung open and we faced this “robust” couple, my jaw dropped. No doubt the shock was plastered prominently on my face. I have never been a shrewd poker player.
The woman was heavyset and, I suppose, did not look bad for someone galloping toward the century mark. The man, however, reminded me of a Holocaust survivor. When I looked at him, my eyes watered. He resembled a human skeleton.
I don't have a photograph of Herman, so this approximation will have to suffice.
“Herman, Wilma, this is my grandson, Mike.”
“Hello, folks. How are you?”
“Say what?” the man asked. He was standing with assistance from a walker on wheels when I entered. The effort was too burdensome, so he inched his way over to a Barcalounger and eased into the seat like a wounded raptor settling on its death nest.
“Can I help you with that, sir?” I asked when I saw he was having trouble sitting down.
“We are in better shape than we look,” Wilma explained. “He can manage just fine. He don’t need no help.”
“Oh, you look wonderful,” Weeze assured her friend as they hugged. “Doesn’t she, Mike? And what about her hair?”
I glanced at the spaghetti strands and thought about my cousin Walter. Damn, he must be a great actor. I don’t think I’m up to the role of dutiful grandson.
I took a deep breath and poured on the manners. “Yes, ma’am. Your hair looks wonderful. Just wonderful.”
Smiling, she reached up and patted the remnants of her hair. “Oh, this bird’s nest? I need to get it styled.”
She did not have enough hair to make a bird’s nest, but I wisely refrained from offering this assessment.
“I have a hair appointment for next week after I visit the gym for my workout.”
“Well, I think it looks simply wonderful.” I resisted the urge to gaze at my watch.
Weeze nodded. “Listen, Wilma, we can’t stay long — “
“ — But we wanted to say hi.”
Wilma frowned. “Didn’t you just bring him by here a few months ago?”
“No, that was Walter,” Weeze said. “My oldest grandson.” She sighed at the memory. Pointing at me, she said, “This here is Mike.” Her tone of voice said: You met the best — now here is the rest.
Suddenly feeling enervated, I responded in a monotone. “That’s me. I’m Mike.”
“So you’re a writer?”
“No, ma’am. That was Walter.”
“What do you do, young man?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
“Oh. How about that.” Her tone of voice said: I met the best — now here is the rest.
“Anyway, I just wanted Mike to meet you and Herman.” She raised her voice. “How are you, Herman?”
Sitting on the couch as he squinted to see what was happening 20 feet away, Herman looked at Weeze with a blank expression on his face. “Say what?”
“I was telling Mike how good you and Herman are doing for your ages.”
Wilma beamed. “Yes, yes. And I been working out. Here. Feel this.” She extended her bicep.
Weeze appeared perplexed. “What?”
“Feel my muscle.”
Weeze did as she had been instructed. She gingerly patted the bicep. “That’s something.”
I shook my head. “No, thank you, ma’am.”
“I been working out.”
“Well, you certainly look good,” Weeze said as she edged toward the door. I edged along with her.
“You could hit me if you want to,” she said to Weeze.
“You could hit me.” She turned in my direction. “Do you want to hit me?”
I had wanted to hit someone or something since I first had walked into Weeze’s house, but it had never been my dream to hit a 95-year-old woman. I shook my head. “That’s okay. I appreciate the offer, though.”
“Oh, come on. Hit me. You can hit me as hard as you want to. I been working out.”
I smiled. “I better not. I’ll take a rain check.”
“Oh, c’mon. What are you afraid of?”
I’m afraid of being convicted of assault and battery, I thought. I’m afraid of going to prison and being somebody’s bitch.
“You didn’t feel my muscle, so you could at least hit me.”
Weeze looked at her friend. “We really do have to go.”
Wilma was adamant. “Well, before you go, hit me on my arm here just once. Hit me as hard as you can. I can take it. I'm tough.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I protested.
Even Weeze had finally gotten her fill of this charade. “Go on and hit her, Mike. We have other people to see, so we need to go.”
To this day, I don’t know what possessed me. Perhaps it was just boredom or frustration at the circumstances. Perhaps it was the thought that I had to visit with more of Weeze’s friends. Maybe I decided to release my inner thug at precisely that moment. In any case, without another word and with no additional thought, I swung my fist and landed solidly on Wilma’s left arm, slightly below the shoulder.
It was not even close to a forceful punch — or so I thought.
The elderly woman staggered from the force of the blow. She stepped back and fell to one knee.
Weeze reacted instantly. “Oh, my God! My God!”
Herman, realizing from the fog of his dotage that something momentous had occurred, spoke up loudly. “Say what?”
Grunting from the effort, Weeze knelt beside her friend. “Wilma, my God in heaven! Are you okay?”
Wilma’s face had turned fish-belly white. Sweat poured down her cheeks. She gripped her arm and looked up meekly at me, her tormentor, with a “deer-in-headlights” expression. For the first time since we had entered her apartment, she was at a loss for words.
I stood where I was and gazed at my still-clenched fist. I had not pounded anyone since the sixth grade. The entire episode had altered my self-perception. Towering over the frightened old ladies, I contemplated my place in this radically new universe.
Weeze stared at me with a mixture of horror and anger. “Mike, what have you done?”
“S-she told me to hit her. You told me to hit her.”
“That doesn’t mean you should do it!”
“But you told me to.”
“If I told you to jump into a fire, would you do that, too?”
“Apparently I would.”
“No one told you to knock a 95-year-old woman on the ground.”
“Well, technically, she only fell on one knee.”
“Wilma, should I call an ambulance? Should I call the police?”
Oh, for God’s sake, I thought. I really will end up in prison. I really might be somebody’s bitch.
I offered to help pick her up, but Wilma kept muttering, "please don't come near me. Please don't come near me." I stood frozen in place.
Now I know what Mike Tyson feels like.
With Weeze’s help, Wilma struggled to her feet. She finally found her voice. “I’ll be fine. I'm tough.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look fine.”
Wilma stared at me reproachfully. “I wasn’t ready.”
“I’m really sorry, Miss Wilma.”
“I wasn’t ready,” she reiterated. “You sucker-punched me.”
“Here, let me help you to the couch,” Weeze said as she gently guided her wounded friend to the nearby furniture.
As his wife settled into the overstuffed cushions, Herman offered his assessment of the day’s troubling developments. “Say what?”
“Can I get you anything?” Weeze asked.
“I’m just gonna lie down for awhile. My maid, Consuela, comes in at three. She’ll take care of me.”
“I don’t want to leave you in this condition,” Weeze explained. “I should dial 911.”
“No, no. I need a nap and I’ll be fine,” Wilma assured her friend. She turned over on her right arm so she could shield her injured appendage from further damage.
“Can I get you anything before we leave — some aspirin, perhaps?”
Wilma’s eyes fluttered closed. She no longer seemed to hear Weeze. “I wasn’t ready,” she muttered as a parting comment. “I wasn’t ready. You sucker-punched me.”
Weeze rose and marched over to where I stood. “I think she’s in a coma.”
“Oh, for pete’s sake, Weeze. She’s just asleep.”
My grandmother placed her hand over her heart. “That was the most horrifying thing I have ever seen.”
This comment came from a woman who had lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the loss of several siblings, the death of one husband from cancer and another one dying of cancer, as well as countless other hard times she had endured while raising four children. My sense of guilt was intense.
“I’m really sorry, Weeze. I never meant to hurt the lady.”
“What got into you? You should know you can’t go hitting on old ladies like that. Next thing I know, you’ll be hitting on me.”
I wanted to hit on her, but I kept my mouth closed and my fists unclenched.
“I don’t know if I feel safe around you anymore.”
“Oh, Weeze, c’mon.”
“I mean it. I don’t even know who you are anymore.” She looked at me as though I were Marlon Brando’s character from The Wild One.
Weeze began to see me in a different light after I slugged her 95-year-old friend.
“Maybe you need help. What are those things called? Oh, yes, anger management classes. Have you thought about signing up for them?”
“I don’t need anger management classes, Weeze.”
“Well, I declare, Mike. You need something.”
I need to be away from you, I thought.
“You can’t just beat on people like that.”
Me — beating on people? For a brief moment, I felt like a genuine macho he-man. At five feet, five inches tall and 125 pounds, I had never seen myself as a testosterone-dripping alpha male, but maybe I had not given myself full credit. All it took was a carefully placed punch to a 95-year-old woman to demonstrate my manly-man bona fides.
“Well, again, I am sorry.”
“Let’s go,” Weeze said. “You’ve done enough damage here. Unless you want to beat up Herman, too.”
I sighed. “Oh, please. You hit one 95-year-old lady and suddenly it becomes the crime of the century.”
“I was going to introduce you to my other friends, but now I don’t know. If we do go, you have to make me a promise: Don’t go hittin’ on my other friends. Can you promise that? When I brought Walter to meet my friends, he didn't hit on them.”
Feeling tough, I shrugged. To hell with Walter. He was the good grandson. As for me, what could I say? I was one cruel dude, a rebel without a cause, a wild one, a bad seed through and through. “I can’t say what I’ll do, Weeze. There's no tellin.'”
“I just don’t want to put them in danger.”
“Speaking of danger, I’m driving this time.”
She started to protest so I gave her my best “I-have-beaten-up-seniors-older-than-you” stare. She stopped talking.
“Mike the Tough Guy” persona had emerged. He decided to hang around for awhile.
Outwardly, I continued to show remorse. Inwardly, I felt good. If my willingness to engage in fisticuffs with a geriatric crowd saved me from further visits with seniors as well as Weeze’s reckless driving, perhaps my violent streak had accomplished something positive after all.
Weeze looked back at her sleeping friend as we departed. "I hope she's not in a coma."
"Oh, Weeze. Spare me the drama."
“Goodbye, Herman,” she yelled as we stepped out of the front door and closed it behind us. “Take care of poor Wilma.”
Herman called out a familiar farewell: “Say what?”