reframing disaster for humor
The definitions of disaster cover a broad spectrum. Starting from the top of Merriam Webster’s entry, a disaster is “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss or destruction.” Very little humor to be found at this level, although history has shown that laughing in the face of horrible experiences sometimes helped make the difference between life and death.
The second definition, “someone or something that is extremely unsuccessful” is where most of reframing for humor originates. Something unsuccessful, inconvenient, embarrassing — something from which you can create a “bounce-back” or “get-even-with-life” story that grows funnier with the telling.
If the success of America’s Funniest Home Videos and similar shows is any indication, many of these tales involve physical mishaps, close calls, and “glad it wasn’t me” moments. Growing up, my family collected such stories like stamps, filing them in our mental loose-leaf binders for just the right time to share.
One such story is my family’s “One Brussel Sprout” story. It is possible that we have strung together several Thanksgiving disasters to form this complete narrative or it has grown with each year of telling. But all of these things DID happen.
For many years, my mother and her brother took turns hosting Thanksgiving. My sisters and I loved going to my uncle’s house. My aunt’s family was jovial, there were other kids to play with, and with alcohol flowing freely, we knew there could be a “story” to tell later.
It came to pass, that on one Thanksgiving, my mother was in the mood to imbibe, but not to eat. Attempts were made to entice her to eat a little something. That little something was one Brussel sprout. Further enticement encouraged her to have a little something from the antipasto plate, so she seized a cherry tomato and popped the entire thing into her mouth. Looking back, we see this happen in slow motion, my mother grabbing the tomato and my aunt rising from her chair, saying the words “no-o-o-o-o! That’s a hot pepper!” But it was too late. The pepper exploded in my mother’s mouth, reaching every corner. Spitting it out into a napkin did nothing to put out the fire. So technically, she had made an attempt, but still, had really only eaten one brussel sprout. That was the end of food but the continuing of alcohol consumption.
As the night came to an end, my aunt packed up leftovers for us to take home. For some reason my mother became enamored of the strawberry shortcake that was left. She insisted on carrying it, lightly covered to not ruin the clouds of whipped cream on top. My uncle helped her into her fur coat and handed her the cake as she began to descend the outside steps going down to the driveway.
One step — no problem. Second step — a little wobble. Third step — complete loss of balance. In a brave effort to save the cake, my mother clutched it to her chest, as her feet left the pavement, and she began to roll sideways down the hill next to the steps. Each roll caused her face to go right smack into the cake. At the bottom of the hill she lay, flat on her back, face covered in whipped cream, and the remains of strawberries and cake adorning the entire front of her coat. It looked like scene in an Agatha Christie book — The Strawberry Shortcake Murder.
We did not laugh then, as everyone rushed to assist. Miraculously, the cake was a great protector, and no injuries were incurred. There was a long process of cake removal, the making of excuses that the steps were faulty, until we could hold back no longer. Once one of the adults began to describe and mime my mother rolling down the hill clutching the cake to her face, we all roared. The story became family legend, retold on many Thanksgivings. And when my mother passed, and years later, her brother, it was this story, and others like it, that helped us laugh through our tears.
And reframing disaster for humor has remained a family coping mechanism ever since.