If you were looking for the ideal place to take part in a residency program in humor, my family homestead was it. Heading that practicum was the master of the practical joke, the hot ticket of wit, my grandfather. We learned at an early age not to get up from the table and leave our sandwich behind. In the amount of time it took to fill a glass with milk, Grandpa could slip a piece of cardboard in-between your baloney and cheese, relight the tobacco in his pipe and snap open the newspaper feigning interest in a column about engine repair. He didn’t have much of a poker face, and sooner or later you learned that his tell was the subtle shifting of his pipe and the twinkle of mischief in his light blue eyes.
There was no mercy if you exposed weakness in a particular area… such as my knack for being easily scared. Living next door to my grandparents gave my grandfather an advantage in unearthing our soft spots. One Saturday night when I was 13 or 14 years old, my parents left me in charge of my two younger sisters while they attended a function in town for a couple of hours. I hadn’t been left alone with such responsibility before then, but I was ready for the challenge, eager to prove my trustworthiness. The girls and I had been alone for less than an hour, when we heard a rasping sound coming from the living room.
“Did you hear that?”
I asked them. They had. We listened more closely as the sound repeated, this time louder, accompanied by sporadic pounding. They stared at me for answers, eyes widening and nerves on edge. Suddenly, the idea of being in charge wasn’t as appealing as it was earlier in the day. After securing zero volunteers for a reconnaissance mission from the other two, (and making the case that the General never leads the march into battle), I made the decision to investigate the situation myself… with the caveat that the two of them accompany me.
Entwined like ivy around a lamppost, the three of us made our way from the kitchen to the living room. It had been quiet for several seconds. We inched closer to the couch, kneeling on the cushions to pull away the curtains that framed the picture window and our view of the front yard. Several more seconds passed without a sound.
I reasoned, calming both myself and my sisters. “It’s nothing. I bet it was a truck going by.”
That’s when the scratching and pounding started again, this time with a velocity and purpose that rivaled a marching band directed by maniacs. I’d like to report that I maintained both sense and sensibility throughout the incident, but that would be a lie. Truth be told, I took off like a Screaming Mimi, shoving my sisters to the floor so I could fly over them to the safety of the bathroom. They were screaming too, but the carpet muffled the sound.
Eventually, the noises ceased and our composure was reclaimed. Needless to say, my parents got an earful when they returned. My sisters were none too shy in their descriptions of how the “babysitter” responded in a moment of crisis. We didn’t find out until the next day that the culprit behind the frightening ordeal, was my grandfather. Knowing that my parents were out and that it was my first time being in charge at night, he hid behind a shrub and banged on the house a few times and scratched the window with his car key. I’m sure he was laughing walking back to his house as he heard us screaming and falling over one other. I’m also sure that my grandmother scolded him for scaring the bah-jee-jees out of us.
Grandpa was one of the good guys with a wonderful sense of fun and mischief. He tinkered with all sorts of electronics and gadgets long before it was popular. One time, he was so annoyed by television commercials, that he built a toggle switch to control the volume. He had a remote control with a mute button years prior to them showing up on store shelves. He was kind and sentimental and filled the house with delight when he played The Irish Washerwoman on his fiddle. You can image our satisfaction whenever we were able to turn the tables on him and hear his laugh pour forth with ease.
A December came when my sisters and I asked Mom if we could buy a tree for Christmas. The price of Balsams had skyrocketed, and it was looking more and more like our old artificial tree would be tapped for that year’s honors. Grandpa was visiting in the kitchen while the conversation was going on.
“Why don’t you go across the road to the woods and chop down your own?”
It sounded like a terrific idea. He laughed and told us that he would supply the saw, never thinking that we would actually take him up on the offer. My sisters and I jumped at the opportunity. We set off to create for our family a Christmas straight out of a Hallmark movie.
After walking around in the wooded acres that stretched behind our neighbor’s house for close to an hour, we finally settled on a beauty. I don’t know what variety of tree it was, but it looked close enough to the type of trees we always had, and it smelled like Balsam, so we claimed it as our own. The girls held the tree so it wouldn’t fall on me as I tore into the trunk with the hand saw. A few minutes of concerted effort and she slowly toppled from their grasp landing softly into a berm of freshly fallen snow. This was the day we discovered how much smaller a tree looks in nature than when it’s standing upright and shoved into the corner of a suburban living room.
It’s a good thing that there were three of us on that adventure. We each took a section of the tree and dragged its solid weightiness, heaving and jerking like oarsmen on a Viking longboat, through the forest dense with pines and hemlocks. We hauled it through our neighbor’s lawn, tugged it across our road and yanked it up the back stairs – point first, through our kitchen door. That’s as far as we made it before it got stuck.
Mom was speechless while my grandfather’s laugh occupied every breath we took. It was clear they had not expected us to follow through with my grandfather’s dare. While Mom wondered whose tree we had chopped, Grandpa had us back up and turn around so we could get in without breaking off every limb.
We did well picking out our Christmas tree. She was 12 feet long! Our home had a 7-foot ceiling. My grandfather spent most of that afternoon “pruning” the tree so that it would fit inside the house. Finally, the Christmas tree took its place of distinction in the corner of the living room, firmly poised in its base. We gathered in front of it, lost in amazement. She was the most magnificent tree I had ever seen. Mom was still shaking her head (concerned, I’m sure, over the fact that we could have been killed by a falling evergreen and that the police would be knocking on our door at any minute); but she liked the tree. My sisters and I felt accomplished. We had provided our family with the enduring symbol of the Christmas spirit and it didn’t cost us a dime! But the best part of that day, the detail that we remember best, is the enjoyment it gave our grandfather. If I close my eyes and allow my mind to be still, I can hear his spirited laugh reach out and wrap my heart in light.