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Even before reading any articles recounting Senator Kennedy’s life and accomplishments I was able to paint the smallest picture from my own memories. My thoughts show gaping holes, and could not begin to serve as a eulogy for the man, but, they rose quickly to the surface when he died.
During the Camelot years, when Jack was President, and Robert Attorney General, I thought of Ted as the ‘other brother.’ Ted was the one who didn’t make it all the way to the top of the ladder. And, then he was the only brother alive to carry on the political aspirations of the Kennedy clan.
The bridge at Chappaquiddick came to mind. I remembered the lingering questions: Was Ted Kennedy driving drunk? Did Kennedy family money influence the findings? I also remembered the name of the young woman who died that night forty years ago: Mary Jo Kopechne.
Living and voting in Massachusetts for many years, I was one of the people who returned Ted Kennedy to the Senate time and time again. The Senator was a proponent of health care reform decades before the current debate. Sitting alone, a sadness swept into me, and I felt the loss of a Senator who held a true course in liberal, democratic action. It seemed doubly sad to know Senator Kennedy wouldn’t see how this year’s attempt at reform will end.
Sketchy as my recollections are they led me to reflect that we all carry our past actions with us, in some form or other. Some have lives troubled by scandal and doubt. Yet, the past doesn’t fully determine the present; and all of us can take up the work of justice together.
I erroneously reported that the woman who called 911 reporting a break in at the home of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identified two black men. This was not the case, even though the police officer on the scene recorded that mistake in his report. One never likes to be the bearer of bad news, and even worse the bearer of the wrong news. With apologies to all who were concerned by the spread of this misinformation, I stand corrected by a thoughtful reader.
Francis Bacon opined that imagination was given to humanity to
compensate us for what we are not; and a sense of humor to
console us for what we are. Humor might be that which gives us
solace for the limitations of our human condition. It compensates
for our inability to soar the heavens, to create perfect lives, to make
of our talents an inexhaustible resource for good works. Humor
allows us to laugh at ourselves as human beings.
It also allows us to laugh at other human beings whether their
actions were intended to provoke mirth or not. Consider the antics
of any comic actor at the height of his or her slapstick prowess.
Jerry Lewis stumbling and rubber-legged. Chevy Chase falling flat
on his face. Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates in every available
orifice and pocket. Jim Carey doing all of the above all at the same
time. All of their actions provoke laughter not just because we
know it’s an ‘act’, but, because we would laugh at the very same
action – if only for a shocked instant – were it a real-life event.
Laughter can sneak up on us, and though we are not callous or
cold, it may give away our mirth in a spurt of loud guffaws before. If you’ve ever laughed at the wrong time…when a pratfall really hurt, or a friend ended up in a tangle on ice skates…you are not alone.
Seeing humor in an unexpected situation might provide a moment
of social embarrassment now and then. But, the same laughter, applied to one’s own difficulties can be a saving grace. You may have had this kind of
experience, too. An argument turns to shared laughter when you
realize the spat is too silly to be taken seriously. A low moment
becomes uproariously funny as you realize it could have been
much worse. Joyful laughter bubbles up as you realize a fall left
you unmarked and unhurt.
Here we come to another perspective on humor…that offered by
Arland Ussher, who saw humor (as)…’despair refusing to take
itself seriously.’ The ability to laugh at ourselves, and others, to take playful
mirth from play-acting, to revise serious and sad moments
with chuckles and hearty ha-ha’s — this is the serious
business of laughter.
When I was a child I was aware of different kinds of stories. There were stories that ended ‘happily ever after’ and the stories told by the Brothers Grimm where characters didn’t always land on their feet. Then, there were the stories my mother told. They told the story of her life.
My mother was raised in an orphanage. She told me she was put in a line with other children to have her tonsils removed without anesthesia. She told the story of being rescued at the age of seven to live with George and Marie. George was kind in the stories, but ineffectual against the indignities Marie imparted. Marie didn’t like my mother’s nose and she spend hours rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger to change its shape. Their home was a boarding house and my mother the household help. Her life included labor too hard for a child which she blamed for the arthritis she suffered as an adult.
My mother never lived ‘happily ever after.’ Yes, she married, had a child and escaped the harsh treatment that shadowed her growing years. But, the stories haunted her. There are other stories she told that contradicted each other or were illogical. She became the heroine of her own life and styled herself gifted with a sixth sense at times.
I learned a lot from my mother’s stories. I learned that there are worse things than having a mother whose tales were sad and confusing. Somehow the stories gave her strength to protect me a new generation of abuse. My mother would have given me a life of ‘happy ever afters’ if she could.
I learned to treat the stories I tell about my own life with a healthy dose of skepticism. Shaping the past to suit our own needs, to bring comfort in times of stress, to enlarge ourselves in our own eyes, is simply human and a gift I share.
I learned that the past changes with the stories we tell. I know that each time I recount my mother’s stories I change history with my words, and the facts will ever elude me. Even this time.