When we recall the loved ones in our life who have died, we generally do so with a tear at their loss, or perhaps a smile at some warm image. Yet there's a rare individual whose memory, even a decade after their death, still prompts us to burst out in laughter.
During the thirty-five years I spent with Alma Stoll, no one made me laugh as frequently or as heartily. My grandmother possessed the kind of good nature that naturally made people smile. It was her collection of antics, however, that induced our out-and-out laughter.
Malapropisms were her legend. No one could turn a phrase or switch around words quite like Alma. The minor ones elicited a simple grin. As long as she lived, for example, she referred to the Christmas nativity scene as an "activity scene." We stopped correcting her. It was more fun that way.
And occasionally she offered a doozy. Like the time she called my childhood home, announcing to my father that the news just reported a possible UFO. "Someone's spotted an Obscene Flying Object!" she told him. "Be sure to tell Gloria," she added in an excited rush of words. "I know she's really interested in that kind of thing!" Alma never lived that one down. Nor did my mother, whose apparent preoccupation with flying penises proved to be amusing news to all of us (including my mother Glo.)
Even in her mid-years, Alma showed an enthusiasm for life. This, along with her German bullheadness, led her to take on pursuits for which she wasn't quite capable. An avid fisherman, she once took the rowboat out by herself while we were vacationing. Later, our repeated attempts to call her back for dinner--through our yelling and motioning from the dock to the boat hundreds of yards from shore--proved fruitless. She seemed to have lost all control of the heavy wooden boat. She rowed in perpetual circles for nearly half-an-hour. Only after my father headed out in someone's motorboat to rescue her did we discover the cause of her problem: she had the anchor out the entire time.
With her typical good humor, she managed to laugh at herself that day. Just as she laughed at herself the time she called our house and, with growing frustration, kept asking my mother to repeat herself. "I can't hear you! Speak up! Honestly, Gloria, something must be wrong with this phone." Finally she paused. "Oh, wait a minute. I forgot," she said. "I have cotton in my ear."
That was the thing with Alma. We never felt we were laughing at her. We were always laughing with her.
The comical stories eventually slowed, as did Alma's body and mind, in her later years. The grandmother I knew became weakened by congestive heart failure and by dementia. The broken neck she suffered in a car accident, although thankfully not paralyzing, took its toll on her too.
The older, frail woman she was in the last years of her life tended to overshadow our view of her. At times, we had to remind ourselves of her former physical strength: how she cleaned piles of freshly caught perch and pounded rugs clean on her back porch.
We had to nudge our memories to recall her former mental strength: this woman who spent much of her youth in an orphanage, and declined an offer of adoption when it finally came, because she wouldn't leave her five younger siblings behind.
Yes, Alma was once vibrant and determined and inspirational. And oh, how she once brought us laughter.
I'd like to think she's smiling, remembering it all, right now.
I hope she's fishing tonight. And that someone else offered to row the boat.