In elementary school, my parents replaced our chandelier with a disco ball, the dining room table often pushed aside for dancing. In high school, they took me to see Rocky Horror Picture Show —Mom’s purse stuffed with rice for throwing at the screen. And in college one Christmas morning, my two sisters and I unwrapped three similar boxes. Inside each identical gold bangle was engraved the identical inscription, “We love you the best. Love, Mom and Dad.”
Our family valued humor over academics and athletics
Our family valued humor the way most value sports or academics. Sure, they would have liked straight A’s—we tried—or athletic prowess—we sort of tried. But it was brilliant comedy that was lauded in our home, which in turn, set the stage for us to be funny. Ernie Kovacs and Mel Brooks, Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn, these were the giants we looked up to and came together to watch. And every time I left the house, before a crucial exam or a date, one of them yelled, “Have fun, dear!” I answered, “I’ll try.”
“Marry someone with a sense of humor,” they repeated through my twenties, “because life’s going to throw you curve balls and you’d better be able to laugh.” This veiled threat became obvious years later when I was besieged by my own marital curveballs. Grim and mirth-deficient, any chuckles during divorce were few and far between. Maybe my parents had been serious about fun so I’d be well-armed once things got dire. If I could find humor, I could access joy. Armed with joy, I might survive.
Humor got me through my divorce
So, I hung a tiny disco ball on my rearview mirror to help me overcome the endless dank morass. Because what’s more fun than dancing? Surely laughing and both were free. I didn’t do either for about two years but finally made it through thanks, in part, to the reminder still left dangling in my car.
My teenage son watching stand-up on his phone beside me. I schooled him on the comedy cannon: from the Marx Brothers to Carol Burnet, Amy Poehler, John Mulaney, and Key & Peele. And from the moment he could zip his own coat, I shoved him out into the world saying, “Have fun, dear,” which I believed sent the right message. Or did, until his transition to high school pre-season summer sports—when things got decidedly un-fun and very real.
I let my son quit sports
I picked him up at the end of the first day; his eyes were wide and despondent. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” I asked. “Mom, it’s not fun.” I waved him off with a smile, adding, “Sports aren’t supposed to be fun.” But he was dead serious, and I had no pithy follow up.
I defaulted, naturally, to abject panic and looked for someone to blame—me, of course, and my parents, always blame them. Scolding myself, I realized I’d led my son to a life of ruin. He’d end up a carnival barker, tango instructor, or worse, a drummer. I called my boyfriend, the athlete. Thank goodness he picked up.
He said, “You can’t make a kid who isn’t an athlete into one.” This, I’m embarrassed to say, was news to me. I assumed my parenting was the culprit; If I’d just pushed a little harder, placed more worth on winning and being first.
I bargained, “But he’s got to learn sometime that competition isn’t fun, right?” “Wrong,” said my boyfriend. “For kids who are natural-born athletes, competition is fun.” More news to me. Growing up with artists, I’d never been competitive. Dancing, singing, writing, crafting—my skill set hadn’t resulted in trophies. My family prized joy. Our gage was laughter. I was totally in over my dread.
My son and I headed home, the tiny disco ball bouncing the sun’s light. By the end of the day I’d let him quit. I obsessed all summer, guilt-ridden over my rash decision. I watched loads of comedy as one does when in the throes of a parenting crisis, which resulted in my arriving at the following grand conclusion: Maybe it isn’t frivolous to carry on our family’s life mantra. Maybe there’s import to easily accessing the silly.
My son joined the Improv Comedy Club
When school began my son joined the Improv Comedy Club and our souls were saved by its merry band of reprobates. Now he thrives thinking on his feet, coming together to laugh with fellow nerds. And I still call out “Have fun, dear!” when he’s on his way to school. He answers, “Unlikely,” with a grin and dry delivery. He’s honing a sharp sense of humor with an occasional competitive edge.
And the joy he’s able to access yields countless holistic benefits. Because the value of fun is important and real. And just as valid a chosen path.
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V.C. Chickering is the author of two funny/racy novels published by St. Martin’s Press: the four-generation dysfunctional family shitshow, TWISTED FAMILY VALUES; and the scandalous suburban romp, NOOKIETOWN. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Cosmo, and BUST magazines and she’s written on-air for Comedy Central, MTV, Lifetime, and Oxygen networks, among others.
She’s thrilled to have been named the Erma Bombeck Humor Writer of the Month for July, 2019, and is currently at work on a historical romance set in 1987. Chickering lives in New Jersey with her family where she writes and performs original clever/catchy songs for her band, Tori Erstwhile and The Montys. Visit vcchickering.com for loads of entertaining author links. Her Insta should also keep you busy for a while.