To bestow a gift or an honor on another can take various forms. Sometimes, what is being bestowed is not always a material item or a title…At times, it can be a quality, or some nuance, such as humor. My father has bestowed on me the gift of humor with a twist of lime – and that lime is the brand called DARK humor.
Humor, I believe, is at least somewhat genetic, thus bestowed via the gene pool. Dark humor MIGHT be genetic, but circumstance can and does bestow on some of us the shadows that create that dark humor. Dad’s dark humor, I believe, was bestowed on him via two vehicles: the first being born in Birmingham, AL in 1935 – the context of a Southern City in the most horrid grips of the Great Depression. He was the sole child of my Southern Gothic paternal grandparents. While my mother’s birthplace and childhood were opposite and separate circumstances, she, too was deeply marked by a childhood of lack, need and poverty, as experienced in the farmlands of Central Tennessee. (Both parents were bestowed an indelible mark that has proven permanent in the context of their lives, and will be there until the end.) As young adults, it formed an attitude of strength, backbone as well as a certain stoicism that saw them through the tougher years of their early marriage, while Dad was finishing up Medical School at Vanderbilt and subsequent, excruciating training (which is a typical bestowment on Residents.)
My parents married in 1958, and Dad graduated from Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 1960; he promptly entered the Residency program with Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, NC, while my mother worked full time to put food on their table. At one point, Dad had to do a Psychiatric Rotation, which he fulfilled at a mental hospital in Davidson County, NC (one wing was for the criminally insane………another tale for another time….). During this rotation, my parents were given free room and board, which they promptly accepted as a means to an end: a free place to stay and free food aided in taking some of the financial pressure away. At that time, this particular institution was self sufficient, in that workers grew vegetables, and actually tended cattle and chickens onsite for steak and poultry and eggs and milk. Being a farm girl, my mother noted how fresh the food was, and how well prepared it was, but somehow, somewhere, that did not last long. She spoke to me about how the quality suddenly went to Hell in a Hand basket, and she was baffled. As she relayed this to me, my father formed a part grin, part sardonic look on his face: it quickly became clear to me that he knew something that Mother was not privy to. I laughed, and told him he might as well ‘spill it’. My mother scoffed, and just waved it off as the cooks getting lazy. Dad laughed, and informed it that no, it had NOTHING to do with the cooks; bad meat can only be ‘doctored up’ so much, as he pulled his glasses down to the edge of his nose and looked at her over the tops of the lenses.
I knew one flamboyant story was just under the surface, and begged him to proceed as he lit a cigarette and sipped on his gin and tonic. He began the story by reminding us of the wretched schedule he worked back in those days – dusk to dawn, plus some, was his usual day. It was one post-midnight summer night when he went into the Admissions office to notate medical records and file them. The facility had no central air, and he’d opened the window facing the front and turned on an area fan to help with the flow of the stagnation that was the Summer night environment. Suddenly, around 3 a.m., he realized he was hearing odd noises just past the front door, that were at first so slight, they had crept into his subconscious, unnoticed. As the noises moved closer to the window, he realized he was hearing muffled voices, and a cowbell, then finally a moo. Dad stood up, poked his head out the window, and saw three orderlies leading a cow with a rope around it’s neck down the driveway, to a horse trailer parked, but ready to pull off the property. Eye contact was made. The orderlies threw him a look that told him to keep his mouth shut. He shook his head and just silently watched, with his hands on his hips, as they loaded up the cow into the trailer, which then disappeared into the dark, early morning. He never saw which way the orderlies went, although they were heard telling the driver that they’d ‘be by the place around 8.’.
As Dad finished the story, he laughed the deep, body shaking laugh that only he can do when something is so absurd, so black, so dark, but so funny, that there is nothing else one can do. I laughed myself, until tears were streaming down my face, and I had to locate a paper towel to blow my nose. My mother was not amused.
The Psychiatric Hospital, amongst other places in Dad’s career, bestowed on him a humor that is indeed dark. Sometimes, it’s black. While I never did pursue a career as a clinician myself, I have worked in hospitals before, and the 2nd and 3rd shift provides much fodder for the dark side, so between my own circumstances, and having my father’s blood flow through these veins, I have been bestowed the gift of laughter, even in the face of darkness. And some may never understand.
To be continued……………….