Before I taught my son old vaudeville jokes, I was a terrible father. For example, one day my son and mother-in-law were looking up planets in her yellowing, moldy World Books. As my son ran in for another volume, I whispered in his ear—and he ran back into the living room.
I leaned back into the couch of the family room, turned off the volume to the Eagles game.
“Grandma,” he yelled, “I want to look up Ur-Anus.”
She isn’t a stomper, my mother-in-law. Her slippered feet made no sound, really, and she didn’t raise her voice.
“Do you want him to get in trouble in school? Do you want him to think he can just blurt out anything anywhere? Do you want to teach him to say anything anyone whispers in his ear?” And so on.
“No,” I said. “Of course not. I’m sorry. Wasn’t thinking.”
And this is just one of a hundred such moments, she reminded me. Wasn’t I responsible for his bending over in the bath and saying, “Look, Grandma, it’s morning. Can you see the crack of dawn?” Or his saying his penis is in trouble, it’s got these two nuts following him around. Yes, yes, I say, it’s all true. The whole litany of charges.
She shakes her head, blows out a sigh. Incorrigible, sick, a terrible influence on her grandson.
So the next Thanksgiving, my son and I are stuffed, sitting on the couch, watching the game, our hands folded on our bellies, our pants unsnapped.
“Well, well,” my mother-in-law says, “you look comfortable.”
“I make a living,” my son says.
You’ve never seen such delight in a mother-in-law before. She brings us pie—even warms it up first. A scoop of vanilla ice cream, melting on the top. Lets us eat it on the couch. Says nothing about our stinky feet on her pillows. She smiles, arms folded, as we eat. Takes the plates away.
“I make a living,” she repeats. Then picks up the phone. “You’ll never guess what my grandson just said.”
I wink at my son. He gives me a high-five. We are living large.
“Hey, Grandma,” he says, when she hangs up the phone. “I know why Jewish men like Grandpa die before their wives do.”
Ah, no. Not that one. Not now.
“They want to.”
When my son was clearing away the dinner dishes, I said to him, Take my knife—please. His blank stare bespoke of a gap in his education. Although I had worked with him on the comic value of Uranus and penis references, I had left out the classics. This project indeed ended with his flawless delivery of the punch line. I was never more proud.