How does a sense of humor ignite? For one novelist, it took a cold day, an old house, and a mother's fiery imagination.
It is my sense of humor that sustains me. It is, other than good teeth, the thing my mother gave me that I appreciate most. What I know as a writer is that painful stories work best when leavened with humor, that it is almost impossible to pull a reader along with you for grim detail after grim detail if you do not balance those details with the joy that life also provides. Sometimes when I am working with passionate young writers, it is that fact they seem to have the most difficulty understanding.
"You want me to care about your character," I tell them. "Make me laugh with her." The ones who don't listen to me always make me wonder about their childhoods. Who failed to give them the sense that the world was wide and wonderful, even if never as sweet and easy as we might wish? What I try to show them is that our lives are more to be appreciated than bemoaned.
There is an image in my mind perfectly clear and sharp. It is the sight of my mother, her head thrown back laughing and her whole face bright with pleasure. She laughed like that often, but at no moment as profoundly as the evening we were fleeing an old house just outside Greenville, South Carolina. It was winter, bitterly cold, and we were hurrying to get away before the landlord discovered we were leaving without paying the rent. To fight the cold, Mama had turned on the oven and the coal stove in the living room and laid little fires in the grates in the bedrooms, where she had never let us light fires before. "Too risky," she had always told us.
We were standing on the porch when Uncle Jack announced that one of the chimneys was pouring smoke. I remember the way Mama tilted her head to look back toward the bedroom, then turned again to look at me. "What do you think?" she asked. "Do we let it burn?" I remember the sensation of being lifted from the inside, air swelling my lungs and my lips spreading in a wide smile. "Yes!" I shouted. Oh, but I hated that house, that yard, that man who had come by pounding on the front door and shouting at us. That was when Mama's head went back and she laughed until her eyes were flooding tears and she was bending over coughing. When Uncle Jack stepped around her with a bucketful of coals and steaming debris, he tossed them well away from the house.
"What are you talking about?" he said to Mama. "We ain't gonna let no house burn down."
"No," Mama agreed, wiping her eyes and pulling me to her with a hug. "But there ain't no reason we can't think about it."
Jack shook his head, and Mama kissed my forehead and hugged me tighter. "Oh, what am I setting loose on the world?" she said, and laughed again.
"Me," I whispered to her, happily. No, my mama would never let a house burn down. She would come back the next morning and scrub the floors and grates. But what she gave me that night was vital—the courage to laugh in the face of hardship and feel joy in the midst of fear. How often have I needed that memory? More often than I want to admit.
This has been a hard year, a year of loss and grief and feeling as if I could not imagine what would come next. Over and over, I have called up the magic of my mother's laughter. Slowly I have found myself again able to echo it with my own. Thank you, Mama.
Dorothy Allison is the author of Bastard Out of Carolina and the recently republished story collection Trash (Plume).
From the November 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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