Laughter: The Best Medicine

Laughter really is the best medicine. Too many of us have forgotten how to laugh, and have become far too serious. If you don’t believe me, take a look around you. There are too many unhappy people–you can see it in their body language and their faces. It’s not healthy. And life is too short not to make the most of it.

I was born into a family that loved to laugh. They also liked to yell a lot, and many fond childhood memories are of family gatherings filled with loud Eastern European voices yelling over each other to be heard punctuated with bursts of hearty laughter. I remember my paternal grandmother laughing so uproariously that tears streamed down her face. Ah, those were the good old days.

Everyone in my family has a sharp wit and wicked sense of humor, but my mother and her older brother were the masters of humor, pranks, and trickery. It was in their DNA and they fine-tuned their skill by learning at the feet of the master, my grandfather. Good grief, that man was funny!

My mother used every April Fool’s Day to play a joke on me and my sisters by taking liberties with our lunches. Peanut butter sandwiches were laced with rubber bands. Ham sandwiches were a piece of paper between 2 sliced of bread which read “this is not a ham sandwich.” Hard boiled eggs weren’t. They were raw.

Of course, we learned to expect it, and so did our friends. They couldn’t wait for us to open our brown bags to see what devilment our mom cooked up, so to speak. And, everyone got a good laugh out of it. I still do.

So, this April Fool’s Day, remember that laughter really is the best medicine. It’s right up there with high quality dark chocolate and good wine. It beats the heck out of being unhappy.

Memories, and Ghosts of Christmas Past

Memories are the best part of Christmas celebrations. And making those memories are even better. For most of us, Christmas has come and gone. But not for me, it hasn’t. My decorations are still up, along with my tree. My tree is the only one that lights up the neighborhood at night, and my neighbors are probably wondering why I haven’t given it up yet. However, I cling to my decorations as much as I cling to my memories, and the ghosts of Christmas past.

I was born into a family that was lucky enough to celebrate Christmas twice in two weeks. My mother’s parents were from Eastern Europe, and were Serbian Orthodox. That’s a tribe (so to speak) that celebrates Christmas on January 7th instead of December 25th. As a child, it was a little confusing, no matter how many times my mother explained to me and my sisters. But it didn’t matter. What did matter was that we got a bonus Christmas.

And that second Christmas was almost more magical than the first one. Santa Claus came on December 25th, but on January 7th, we got something better than Santa. We got a special holiday with our cousins. And our grandfather.

My grandfather was the one person who loved Orthodox Christmas even more than we kids did. To make it even more special, it was the birthday of his first grandchild, my oldest sister. And something she lorded over the rest of us for at least forty years. My grandfather would make a fuss over her, and then the rest of us, as he presided over the huge family meal.

Speaking of the family meal, every year the women outdid themselves, and I can only imagine the amount of work and preparation that went into it. But I can guess–they didn’t seem to enjoy the day quite as much as my grandfather did. Along with all of the food, there was always a single tall candle in the middle of the table that remained lit for the entire day. And next to it was a bottle of good whiskey.

The bottle sat there, untouched, next to the candle until the meal was finished and the trays of cookies were laid out. Then, with great ceremony, my grandfather would pour a shot of whiskey for each of the men. (He wasn’t  discriminating–the women just didn’t drink shots of whiskey back then). That would signal the official end of the meal, but not the end of the celebration. The party went on forever!

When my grandfather was gone, my Uncle presided over the table for the next twenty-five years. After he passed, my Aunt took over. The tradition still continues to this day, in that house in Western Pennsylvania, with a few changes along the way. For one, the women have no problem imbibing in the traditional shot of whiskey.

Today, I will celebrate Christmas in my heart, and remember all of the wonderful lessons I learned from my grandfather. First, it’s important to stick with tradition. It’s also important to sing at the top of your lungs, no matter where you are or who is listening. Play practical jokes on people and laugh at them. Laugh even harder when the joke’s on you. A sense of humor keeps you young at heart. Also, never underestimate the value of a shot of good whiskey, especially when you’re sharing with friends and family. And speaking of family, that’s the most important lesson of all. Stay together, love each other, laugh, cry, fight with each other, and always remember that they have your back.

Today I will pour myself a shot of whiskey, raise a toast to my grandfather, and thank him for the memories, and the ghosts of Christmas past. What a gift he gave us, and what wonderful lessons of love he left for us. I would end by saying Merry Christmas, but I’ll stick with tradition….Hristos se Rodi!

There’s a car in our living room.

It was late winter. It was late enough in the evening for it to be dark outside, but not so late that my 2 older sisters and I were in bed yet. I was 4 years old.  My mother was working on a project at the dining room table. My oldest sister was doing her homework at the kitchen table. My other older sister was in the corner bedroom that the three of us shared. My father wasn’t home.

I had just put my pajamas on and walked into the dining room to my Mom, turned around, and asked her to snap up the back of my “jammies”. Just as she started, a horrible series of explosions rocked the house. I fell over backwards and could hear myself and my sisters screaming. My mother immediately reacted and yelled, “Girls, the house is blowing up! Quick, get your coats and shoes and get out of the house!”

My sisters and I dutifully ran to the hall closet with our Mom close on our heels to make sure we got our coats and shoes on before leaving the house. (You may be wondering why anyone would insist on grabbing our coats when the house was exploding. If you are thinking this, I guarantee you have never spent a long, cold winter in Western Pennsylvania).

Anyway, as we were grabbing the appropriate outerwear, our mother looked back into the living room and said, with obvious relief in her voice, “Girls, girls. It’s OK, it’s just a car.”  We looked back with her and, sure enough, you could see the blinking red tail lights of a huge green station wagon that had gone through our picture window right up to the stone fireplace!

Just then our neighbor showed up at our door. The poor man was hysterical and inconsolable. His family was with him, all equally upset. It was their car that had come crashing through our window. They had just come home from an evening out. He had parked the car in his driveway. He and his family (thankfully) got out. He opened his garage door, turned around to get back in his car and pull it into the garage, and the car was gone.  Unfortunately, he forgot to put the car in park, nor did he engage the emergency brake. Oooops.

We lived at the top of a hill. Well, almost at the top. Our neighbors lived across the street and slightly above us. They watched in horror as their car rolled down their driveway, across the street, picked up speed and momentum to come crashing through our window. I can’t imagine what that experience was like for them. As upset and terrified as we were, it must have been even worse for them, wondering if anyone had the misfortune to be in the living room at the time. Had anyone been in there, they would not have survived.

Our Mom took us a few houses down where another neighbor looked after us. She comforted our neighbor and his family. She realized that as bad as the situation was, it could have been much worse. She knew she had a mess on her hands and that my Dad was in for a huge surprise when he got home. But her family was safe. I remember sitting next to one of our neighbor’s boys in front of their fireplace as he peeled an orange for me. Even though I had been through what could be considered a trauma, I knew all was well with the world. I was safe. I was in front of a warm fire, and I was eating an orange. The grownups were in charge. They would figure it out. And fix it.

There are several life lessons in this little story. First of all, even if your world is exploding around you, you still need to get your coat and shoes on to protect you from the elements. You made need them. Second, no matter how much you are suffering, someone else may be suffering more, and needs your reassurance and comfort. Third, it’s important to use your emergency brake. You never know when it may come in handy. Last of all, oranges in late winter is a luxury. Especially if your house just blew up.