Bapa's Last Joke

Bapa entertaining me with a routine at 4 months old

Bapa entertaining me with a routine at 4 months old

Even though people thought of my grandfather as jokester, I very rarely heard him laugh. We visited my grandparents in south Florida only once or twice a year, so I never established strong familiarity with Bapa. I knew him as a voice on the other end of the phone that made my father burst into quick, surprised packages of laughter or in person as a soft giant taking slow, steady steps in his tropical home, wearing terry cloth polo shirts and bright white tennis shoes.

He lived to be deadpan. He did strange things just to amuse himself but never acted as if they were absurd. He turned pedestrian statements into catchphrases and undertook long cons, like the time he bought a live shrimp and put it in a small aquarium. He didn’t have any kind of eccentric love for shrimp, he just thought it would be funny to have one as a pet for a while and act like it was normal. I would watch the shrimp list around the tank, waiting for it to do something interesting, and my grandfather would say, “He’s a little tired right now; I just took him on a long walk.”

My father and I both share this sense of humor and have adapted it in our own ways, but Bapa was the originator. My great-grandfather, Dad explained to me, was exceedingly stoic, a man who left behind Alabama crops for factory work in cold, northeastern Ohio. If the internal mechanisms he used to deal with his situation ever caused amusement, they’re lost to history.

I believe a sense of humor isn’t a characteristic that you happen to express or not depending on the order of your genes. Humor tumbles within generations of a family, too unpredictable to call it hereditary. It’s more like a pattern of thought shaped over time from experience and morality, pride or prejudice, or sometimes merely how a family encourages (or discourages) the members who thrive on entertaining others.

We develop it by exercising a certain way of joking or informal interaction, like interrupting your mom’s lecture with a well-timed quip to derail the sternness of the moment. Sometimes that exercise is intentional, but more often in a family setting it’s unconsciously practiced, the same way we adopt the path we take around the kitchen when we sweep, or the order in which we scan a menu or read a newspaper, or the rituals of a Sunday afternoon.

I think of a joke as a token that enables exchanges of ideas, establishes bonds between people, and affords those who have them access to things that other people must win through more serious currencies like reputation, prestige, or, simply, cash.

So, if a sense of humor is more of a birthright rather than a genetic transmission, certain jokes can take on the same emblematic qualities of an cherished heirloom. There is a joke like this in my family, one that we all tell differently—or, rather, it’s a story about a wisecrack my grandfather made, and we continue to tell it not because it’s especially hilarious but because it typifies Bapa so well.

I remember first hearing it from a Baptist preacher as he presided over my grandfather’s memorial service. This preacher had a very superficial sense of humor, one just generic enough to aid in all the interactions he undertook daily with his large congregation. He told the story straightforwardly, relying on my grandfather’s punchline to add energy to his own rendition.

My father’s gone to church all his life, but he’s never absorbed any mannerisms of a preacher, so when he tells the story he’ll start softly and deliberately, setting the scene by placing people in it: he and my mom, his sister and my uncle, my grandmother—the adults—all gathered in my grandparents’ condo overlooking a section of the Intracoastal Waterway, decorated with dozens of doily-winged angels and pastel paintings. My grandfather was finally succumbing to a cancer that started in his kidneys but was more emphatic about blossoming in his lungs. There was no more treatment to be had, and they’d set him up a Hospice bed in the center of the condo just off the dining area, and when he elevated the top half of the bed to sit up, he could catch a glimpse of his bare scalp, his thick brown hair gone from the chemo, framed in the circular mirror rimmed with small glazed conch shells.

He didn’t have much time left, so the pastor and his wife came to testify and console. My family gathered around the bed and cried through pressed, hot eyes while the pastor prayed over my grandfather’s weakened body, soon to be, they all believed, restored in heaven and reunited with Christ.

After the amen, there was a long pause, the sniffing not-silence of people feeling and waiting out a hierarchy of who should speak next and what should be said, and my grandfather looks at them and interrupts their solemn pain by asking, “So, what are we supposed to do now, order a pizza?”

And when Dad tells this punchline he’ll deliver it through an impression of Bapa, the way you recite lines from sitcoms to your friends.

And when my little sister tells it, she’ll make a goofy voice to emphasize the silliness or maybe change up the wording since she wasn’t there : “Dooooes anybody wanna call for a pizza?”

And when I tell it, a person unused to telling stories out loud and hitting dramatic beats, I’ll always let the pre-punchline pause swell a little too long.

But Bapa never meant for this joke to outlast him by another two decades. It was just another one of his one-offs tossed to a small audience.He couldn’t have guessed it would have such a lasting effect. That one unexpected quip gave the room permission to overlook his sunken eyes and thin limbs and instead enjoy the freedom of relief that comes from a game concluding: the setup then the snap. It gave them a chance to climb back down from heaven to the humid condo and recall the paper menus of local pizza places stuffed in the kitchen drawers and sensations past and present, all captured in a sentence with two meanings.