Laughter: Our Snake Oil

In the spirit of fairness, I need to point out that our homes were not houses of horrors, although horrible things did happen in most of those homes.  Ah! You say…the disfunction did make her crazy!

Maybe so, but my real point is that even in the most unsuspecting places, there is good, and more importantly, there is fun.  My dad could be cruel, indecently inappropriate, and controlling, yes!  But, gosh, let’s give him a momentary reprieve because he was also quite funny when times were good, and the tide was with us.

We’ll ignore the fact that he completely controlled the tide (flexibility is important, after all) and consider how humor is a tremendous survival skill that helped my siblings and me become relatively successful and very adaptable humans.

One of my early memories from somewhere in Kansas involved the four of us young ‘uns collectively taking an enormous risk to tap his humor.  I wasn’t even in school yet; thus the others were all still in grade school, which might account for the very poorly advised plan, what with underdeveloped brains, and whatnot.  We were all in trouble (which sounds like a big deal, but was more likely something as egregious as someone not making their bed properly or all of us being inconsiderate enough to act like children and do something crazy like laugh too loud…I think you get my point…).  Rather than doling out on-the-spot spankings, either individually or in group formation, Dad would set a time for us to “appear” to accept our punishment.  As a veteran, I have to give a nod to his grasp of psychological warfare; the anticipation was way worse than the actual butt-whacking.

In any case, on this occasion, someone devised a strategy for us all to hold pillows over our rears as we somberly marched down the stairs in order of age (an excellent plan for me; as the youngest, I would be last to the slaughter) as we reported in for our spankings. The hope was for an unprecedented softening of the ogre, that he’d laugh uproariously, and all would be forgiven.  Cray-cray, right?  How opportune that he was, after all, cray-cray, and it worked!  It worked as never before (or after, I might add). It was a perfect storm in reverse. He laughed heartily, probably accrediting our wit to his genes, and there were no spankings that day. Our victory cry was fiercer than our wails would have been. I think I remember it among so many blocked memories because of our success, and because it was never to work again.  And because it was funny. The Seley kids’ first and last stand. It was epic.

And then there was the time when we lived on a reservation in New Mexico and my brother was out hurdling sage bushes (yes, he did it for hours, but that’s not the funny part) and somehow flew face-first into a large cactus patch.  Ouch. We rarely went to the doctor for anything, so Mom went at it with the tweezers and proceeded to pull a bunch of needles out from all over…and I mean, all over. We could hear it all from the next room. How can three sisters not find humor in that?  Not at the time, of course (at least where we could be heard), we ain’t that cruel, but I’m sure there were many subsequent jokes, and even he laughed about it later, because that’s how we coped.

We played when we could, laughed at every single opportunity, sometimes just for the sake of feeling it all lift away.

Fast forward through a rollercoaster of moves to my teenage years when I was the last kid at home, now in Idaho. The other three had escaped things I hadn’t even known they’d endured, and I was just navigating through my remaining time.  On this day, Dad was prone on the couch, taking in some football (which he could apparently watch while sleeping because if you had the gall to change the channel or turn it off, he’d awake in mid-snore to tune you up). Mom and I returned from the local laundromat and upon entering the living room, we saw him “watching” the game, mouth agape, drool, snores, and all.

As we crept in with our full laundry baskets, the floorboards inevitably creaked, and he loudly proclaimed (eyes still closed), “Quit walking on the floor!”  Mom and I looked at each other, asking the same question with our eyes: Where then, are we supposed to walk? The ceiling, perhaps? And then we did the unforgivable: we dissolved in laughter.  Unlike with the pillow incident, he was none too pleased, all was not forgiven (although no alternative trek besides the floor was offered for us to bring in his clean skivvies).  I remember this because, well, it was damn funny, but mostly because my normally very meek and accommodating mother was actually in cahoots with me, and she boldly giggled through it all without regret.  I suspect there were repercussions for her later, but I saw it as the beginning of an unprecedented and wonderful alliance that lasted until her dying day.  Yay for smartass humor!

We often laughed a lot when it was just us kids at home, or out of earshot when he was home.  We laughed with him when he was “up,” as we called it, because when things were good, they really were good.  And it was such respite from the dark times, it made the good times that much brighter. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it was a tightrope.  Depending on which Dad we had on any given day (same man, mind you) his humor could be so lewd and inappropriate we either didn’t understand or laughed because when he laughed, we all laughed.  That’s just how it was.  I also never would have joked about my brother getting cactus needles yanked out of his junk if I’d known he ran and hurdled sagebrush for hours as his way of escaping what he’d been privately subjected to by our father since he was a small child. He was running because he could.

But I didn’t know that then.  My brother was and is one of the funniest people I know. He makes me laugh until I cry.  I just didn’t know that back then, he and my sisters laughed so they wouldn’t cry.

Laughter is the best homeopathic medicine for short and long-term ailments.  It is, at least, when butt pillows are deemed funny.  And it is, for sure, when for one brief, shining moment, your mama becomes a giggling rebel.  That was sweet

And for the record, when transporting laundry across the house, to this day, I audaciously march across the floor.  And laugh the whole way! Touché!

Seley Household: 20th Century COVID-19 Training Ground

As we all settle into our new normal of “social distancing,” however temporary it may be, I can’t help but think of how this was the norm during our childhood. Allow me to explain (as if there were any doubt at all that I wouldn’t pick up this thread and ramble for a good 800 words or so!).

If you follow this blog, it won’t surprise you that our dad was much a self and family isolator. He often took his self-isolation to extremes by not leaving his bedroom or closing all the curtains in the house to shut out light and people for days or weeks at a time. Sometimes it included blankets over the curtains, which was a bummer in the winter because we kind of favored the blankets in our beds. Overkill on the isolation thing, you say? Well, maybe. But dang! He would have been Corona-virus-free for sure! Let’s take a look at social distancing, Seley-style.

Ours was not the house all the kids came to, ever.  That sounds kind of sad, but it wasn’t a big deal because our parents never had friends over either, so it just seemed normal. In fairness, Dad did have a charming and funny side to his personality, which was delightful but unpredictable. His Mr. Hyde-side was completely antisocial and could surface as quickly as it took for us to go to school and return. It was too risky to bring someone home even with a rare advance permission. So, for most of our childhoods, we were well-insulated. Today that would be ideal! No people, no germs!

As I’ve pointed out to a ridiculous degree throughout previous blog entries, I was exempt, for whatever reason, from the worst of Dad’s indiscretions with his own children (producing a nice package of gratitude buried in a lot of guilt). But as the youngest, I think I had some unique experiences; I suppose it’s typical for the rules to loosen with the last kid. I made my first friend, Kris, in the sixth grade, and we quickly became BFF’s. It was wonderful. Fortunately (and I should have capitalized that), she never noticed anything strange about the old man, and he was very fond of and entirely appropriate toward her. Maybe she was sprinkled with my immunity-from-him fairy dust? I don’t know. But in years to come, after my sibs all moved out, I became more social, and sometimes my two worlds were allowed to overlap. Although there were definite windows of time (closed curtain times) when I wouldn’t have dreamed of having anyone over, there were exceptions. They didn’t always go well.

I’ll ease you in with a reasonably harmless Lesson #1 on the value of isolation/distancing in our house, once I was the only kid left. It came at about the age of fifteen when one of the coolest girls I knew was coming to our house for a sleepover. This was a huge deal because I was kind of a shy nobody; I was nervous and excited. So, over she came and when it was time for dinner, honestly, what was going to be on the table was the least of my worries because my parents were great cooks. Silly me. 

When we sat at the table, Mom looked embarrassed, and Dad was just as charming as could be. Charming, indeed, as he dished up the cold pork and beans from the can with a side of canned store peaches. That was dinner. Allow me to elaborate. We had lots of other options, humble, perhaps, but stuff for real meals. While over the years, our fare during lean times might have been bread with gravy, bacon and beans, or potato soup (all delicious) because there wasn’t much else, we had never, I mean never, had cold food straight from the can. 

This wasn’t a case of me being a spoiled, entitled kid, it was a case of me, a shy kid at a critical social moment, being caught off guard by a mean person with an ax to grind for reasons I still don’t know. Mom was as mortified as me, but of course, held her tongue. My friend was a little surprised but very gracious. I kind of wanted to die.

 I obviously didn’t die.

But I also never invited that girl again, which was easy, because I’m sure she couldn’t get out of there fast enough the first time. Sheesh! If I’d only known the value of driving people away decades in the future, I suppose I’d have been grateful for my COVID-19 prep training. If they don’t come over, they can’t bring in them germs!

Seley Isolation/Distancing Lesson #2 was when I had a second BFF who shall remain nameless. We were in junior high and utterly inseparable. And while her family life was far from perfect (I discovered we didn’t corner the market on dysfunction; my dad was too handsy, among other things, but her dad got drunk and beat her), she was very ill-prepared for what my fabulous father had in mind for her. This gets tricky. To keep it short and not get too icky, he couldn’t “have” me (a subject for a future blog, I’m sure), so he thought she would do fine. And he wanted me to ask her

For reasons I hope are clear, I’ll vague-out here…I have my blog-blabbing limits, after all. But, no, his wishes did not come true. While she was very sympathetic toward me about the weirdness of it all, she obviously stayed clear of him after that, and things were never quite the same. If we’d had a pandemic right then, by golly, I would have been saved from getting too close to her. But at the time, it sucked.

Lesson #3 came when Daddy-o hit on the very first boyfriend whom I brought home (you can read that again, but you did read what you thought you read). Imagine my surprise. I guess the upside is that the cute boy came out years later and was very openly and happily gay; maybe he would have thanked my dad for helping him discover his sexuality? I don’t know. I’m happy for him. And, more importantly, I learned not to bring boys over for a long time and later, when I did, they were strictly supervised. I ensured they stayed at least 10 feet away from Dad. I instituted social distancing decades before COVID-19! My genius even astounds me sometimes!    

While I would gladly deal with my late bizarre father again right now if it meant eradicating the insidious COVID-19 from the planet, truth and perspective are important. Because of him, I was predisposed to living by our current safety guidelines way before I even knew how to spell “pandemic.” 

Finally, after all these years, I can say, “Thanks, Dad!”  

And boy, was that weird.