A couple of summers ago, my sister and her daughter and I were at a Rockies baseball game. Beautiful evening. Big crowd. Just the girls—our significant others and her son sitting together in another row.
Up on the jumbotron, a game: what’s the next line in the “Beat It” song by Michael Jackson? Three choices. Two ridiculously wrong answers, and one obviously right one. Behind us, a couple of twenty-something guys who may or may not have been high (this being Colorado and all), decide “No one wants a beef fajita” with a certain kind of earnestness in their voices that makes it hard to tell if it’s coming from a place of mockery or sincerity.
My sister and I hear this, look at each other, and start laughing. The problem is that we keep laughing for the next 20 minutes, she and I both crying, our stomachs aching, shoulders lurching up and down, and her pre-teen daughter looking at us with the kind of agony only a pre-teen girl can have in the company of her mortifying mother and aunt.
The Mininger laugh, it’s called. And it’s both a blessing and a curse.
In eighth grade, during Student Council, we’re tying name tags to balloons that had been purchased for a fundraiser. My friend Megan picks up a tag and reads the name: “Spiff Dart.” This strikes me so funny that I spend the next hour on the floor howling, saying the name over and over, and howling harder every time. It can’t be real! I am tickled with the fantastic absurdity of it, while everyone rolls their eyes at me, not amused.
I remember being in stitches with my dad once during a church service. I was an adult by then. I don’t even remember why we were in church—since I’m not religious and he hadn’t been a churchgoer in years. But something got us going and off to the races we went. Or the time when I moved to San Francisco and couldn’t figure out how to use my first cell phone. Exhausted from helping me move, about to leave his middle child in a strange city, watching my increasing frustration with the instruction manual, my dad started giggling like a lunatic and I couldn’t help but join in.
My brother got the laugh, too, and he’s adopted—which makes the case that some genes are catching. In church again, this time at an Easter service. I was probably 16, which made him 15—that irreverent age range where all decorum goes out the window at the first opportunity. During communion, he was passing the tray of grape juice (standing in for wine, of course). Keep in mind it’s a cavernous place, filled to the gills with the pious, quiet enough to hear the proverbial pin drop. And as he passes the tray to me, I fumble, or he fumbles. In any case, we fumble, and the damn tray tips, the fake wine sloshing, and then the whole thing proceeds to crash to the floor…whereupon all you can hear is a million tiny glasses tinkling on a hard surface as they roll under people’s feet to the front of the sanctuary. Stunned at our haplessness, my brother and I then laugh so hard we are close to barfing. The thing is, you simply can’t “settle down” in those moments, no matter how sternly your parents are looking at you.
My mom has it, and she married into the family (see what I mean about genes being catching?). You get her started on something, she’s unlikely to stop. We remind her of slipping on the ice, and the picture-worthy pie she was carrying doing a full arse-over-tit flip in the air before landing upright in a snow bank, not a crumb out of place. Put a fork in her (no pun intended) because she’s done—and so are we.
Back to my dad. He got the laugh from his dad—my grandpa—who was surrounded by it as a child in the form of siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts. When you survive the Great Depression, as they did, moving from Texas to California to try to scrape together a living (I always say The Grapes of Wrath could have been written about my grandpa’s family), you have to see the humor in what could otherwise be too tragic for words. You learn to laugh so that you will not cry.
Back in those days, death was not feared so much as looked upon with a certain kind of cheerful curiosity and potential entertainment. My grandpa told a story of being electrocuted in bed at night. The older brothers had rigged up some wires from a windmill outside to the inside of the house where they were placed under the younger boys’ mattresses. In the dry, blowing heat of the prairie, quite a lot of power could be generated, startling the literal pants off of someone. He told another story of his younger brother, strung up to the rafters, about to be hanged (those older brothers were merciless). He was beside himself with fright until their father walked in just in time and put a stop to it.
What is death, though, if not the next, more interesting town down the road? Why not go out with a bang and guffaw? In the absence of money and toys and leisure activities, looking at the world through the Jester’s eyes is a skill that gets cultivated and honed. Words take on new meaning. Character traits become amusing. Sober events are looked at from a mirth-filled angle. Everyday strife can be born much easier when born with humor. These attitudes, these genes, get passed down, whether you like it or not.
And then there are the chances to be deliberately funny, in the windswept flatness of my grandpa’s youth.
Play a practical joke on the teacher—sure, why not? Dig a hole, cover it with weeds and sticks, then ask to take her for a walk (as young doting school boys, admiring of a female teacher, will do). Lead her right over the hole and watch her fall in. Laugh till your sides ache and hope that she gets the joke.
What’s funny to the next guy? Better question: what’s funny to a Mininger? What about a cat wandering down the aisle during the middle of a sermon? Or a bull getting loose into the bed of a pickup truck while hurtling down the highway? How about losing the same trailer on a mountain road—twice? The stories become hazy. I don’t even know what’s what anymore, they’ve been told so many times. All I know is that the Mininger laugh is famous for its inopportune timing, its inappropriate arrival (laughing at a funeral, anyone?), and most of all its infuriating meeting of imminent crisis with that first twinkle-in-the-eye chuckle. A blessing and a curse, I tell you.
All these stories and many more like it are legendary in my family. And every single one of them—whether mild in subject matter or blood-curdlingly dangerous—can barely be told for all the laughter in the room. My grandpa, face red, white hair springing off his head, little round belly shaking, was like a “hee hee hee” Santa Claus. My dad, on the other hand, has the blubbering, knee-slapping situation going on. My sister and I cry our eyes out while tossing around as if stricken with some kind of palsy, while my brother’s eyes screw up until they’re nearly closed, his high-pitched laugh sounding like a Looney Tunes character. Or take my mother, who bends over at the waist while simultaneously putting one hand over her mouth, as if pushing the laugh back in will solve the issue. Others in my family—cousins, aunts, uncles, my grandma—laugh until they can no longer breathe, until they and you are tortured by it, helpless to stop.
Like the hiccups, we try all sorts of maneuvers to end it. Take a deep breath, but that laugh, insistent, just rises right up again. And whatever you do, do not look at your sister.
A life spent appreciating the hysterical, right up to the sunset.
Then, at death’s door, when it’s no longer frightening to contemplate, when the curiosity is more than just a pastime of the young, my grandpa, in a nursing home, near-catatonic for years, wheel-chair bound, hasn’t stood or walked on his own in weeks or maybe months, they tell me, and a week or two before he dies, someone goes into his room and sees him standing up, walking around, and laughing. Perhaps it was long-deceased Hiram who was with him, right over there, sitting on the bed—see?—reminiscing about the time the bats were in the house. I don’t want to say for sure. Not being a religious person, I can’t attribute this miracle to something Bible-ish. But I know that whoever was there laughing with my tired grandpa was pointing him into the bright light of the All Right. Which, in the end, is the only way to go.
If there’s one thing you learn in this family, it’s that the other side of the sad coin is always and only hilarity. Boundless, restorative, calling-you-home hilarity. We know this as intimately as we know when to plant and when to harvest and when to gather.
And the Mininger laugh, perhaps for this reason, was never a curse at all…but the best, most beautiful kind of blessing.
In loving memory of Gerald Mininger, my grandpa, who passed away on May 17, 2015, and who went—I hope—with a humdinger of an amusement beckoning.