My mother, my brother Danny, and I recently placed our ninety-year-old husband/father into a memory care facility. He has advanced dementia, he’s had a string of mini-strokes, and he’s become impossible for our mother to care for and control at home. Our father is a ghost of his former self. He’s incontinent, he frequently stands up and sits down for no purpose, he stares into space, and his actions are either destructive, such as tearing up books, or illogical, such as repeatedly throwing his and our mother’s belongings out onto the front lawn. This is a man who was a successful public relations director, who has read innumerable books and is an expert on many subjects. Until recently, he was a gifted pianist.
Our father’s sad deterioration recently led Danny and me to discuss our favorite memories of him. This was a bit challenging, since our father either physically abused or ignored us as children, but we soon hit on the same shared pleasant recollections: our father telling us stories as adults as we all sat in our parents’ living room sipping drinks.
All his life, our father’s been crazed to play practical jokes on unsuspecting victims, and most of his stories involve these exploits. He tells these tales with utter glee and a series of guffaws that culminate in belly laughs at the punchline.
One of our favorite stories is about a prank spider our father bought in secret as a boy. The arachnid’s body was made of wood with a spring glued to the underside of its abdomen. The spider’s legs were springs, and a convincing coat of thick black hair covered its body and limbs. Our father put this object on the top shelf of his closet, hoping his mother would knock it to the floor while dusting. And this is exactly what happened. The hairy creature advanced on his mother, its body and legs a-quiver. Panicked, she grabbed a fly swatter from the kitchen and smashed it down, but the more she hit the attacker, the more it vibrated and sprang toward her. Near hysteria, his mother fled and returned with an aerosol can of insecticide, which she unloaded on the aggressive spider, but the spray just caused the creature to shake and jump at her. Finally, she took up the fly swatter again and beat the eight-legged villain until the wet fur fell off and she perceived it was a toy made of wood and springs.
Whenever our father told us this story, he’d chuckle, imitate his mother’s expressions and actions, produce sound effects, mimic the spider, and gesticulate wildly. When the story reached its conclusion, he tilted his head back and bellowed with laughter. I once told my three sons this story when they were children, and I gestured so enthusiastically that my kitchen chair collapsed. This event has passed into family legend.
Inevitably, the next story our father told was a predictable one about him arriving early to school and setting the stage for a prank on his first-grade teacher. He dropped a dollar bill to which he’d attached a thread near the teacher’s desk and ran the thread down a groove between two floorboards so it was invisible. Of course, when class started, his teacher noticed the money and reached down to pick it up. Our father jerked the thread, and the greenback danced away. His teacher pounced repeatedly at the elusive bill while my father and his classmates hooted with laughter. Dad’s delivery of this story was as animated as usual, and he threw his head back, crowing with laughter at the end. The story is only mildly amusing, but it’s always rewarding to watch our father laugh with the abandon of a six-year-old!
When I reminded our mother of this story recently, she told me our father had excellent grades in high school but was turned down year after year by the National Honor Society because this dignified club viewed him as too immature to be a member, given his penchant for practical jokes and other wild stunts. His senior year, the club finally admitted him because his stellar grades proved he was smart.
The third practical joke story that Danny and I remember took place much later in our father’s life, when he worked as a public relations director for a transportation company. One of his staff members was Steven, a young man straight out of college who took his job seriously and excelled at his work. However, as Steven’s annual performance review approached, our father gleaned that Steven was highly anxious about it, perhaps because he’d never had one. Our father used this information to crank Steven’s anxiety up to new heights by saying things such as, “Well, Steven, like it or not, we better schedule your performance review. It’s best that we get it over with and put it behind us.”
Our father announced Steven’s review would take place a week later, and he used this time to make a series of foreboding remarks about it until Steven was in a paroxysm of anxiety. On the day of his review, Steven was a nervous wreck. Just before our father called him into his office, he wound up a toy frog and placed it on the table between the chairs where they’d be sitting. Steven came in and squirmed in his chair, sweat dripping down his face.
“Well,” our father said, “before we really get into it, I just want to say that we all know you’re young and haven’t yet built up much experience. And we take that into consideration whenever we notice an employee exercising poor judgment—”
With a startling pop, the green plastic frog sprang into the air. Steven screamed and jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair. Our father howled with laughter. When he caught his breath, he said, “Congratulations, Steven! Your performance this year has been outstanding!”
When I related this story to our mother recently, she said, “Well, I haven’t heard that one, but I don’t like it. That story reveals a cruel streak your father’s had all his life.”
Now here’s a curious thing—the fourth story our father tells isn’t humorous, and he never comments on it. Our family is white. When our father worked for the transportation company, he reported to an African-American woman named Sydney whom he adored. She was beautiful, intelligent, warm, and highly capable. Her boss was the company’s highest executive, and she was often under too much work pressure to visit our father and his team on a frequent basis.
One winter, she and our father crossed a snowy courtyard at work from opposite ends in their wool coats. When our father recognized Sydney, he ran and pulled her into a bear hug. After embracing her for a few seconds, he released her and stepped away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess that was inappropriate.”
Sydney smiled and said, “It’s okay. I understand—you were just happy to see me. I’m happy to see you, too. It’s been a long time.”
When our father finishes this story, he’s happy, as if he’s just recounted a favorite memory of reuniting with his mother. However, our father’s mother was a cruel, mentally ill woman who abused him, and our parents were raised in West Virginia at a time when many white families had black maids who performed housework and also served as nannies.
I try to put myself into that close embrace with the beautiful Sydney, lingering only a few seconds too long, and wonder where those seconds carried him.
Allen Long is the author of Less Than Human: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, 2016). His memoir, “Praying for Restraint,” is forthcoming in Broad Street. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and he lives with his wife near San Francisco.