When most families get together for a holiday, a reunion, a birthday – whatever the occasion – conversations will almost always turn to the family stories that have been shared over and over again through the years. These stories form the common thread that weave a family together, generation after generation. Some stories are very old, some are within more recent memory, some are very new, and some are still to be made and told. Those memories, those stories, are the stuff of legend within that family……….held dear to the heart and treasured as much as, if not more than, the oldest antique piece of furniture or knick-knick that we have handed down from child to child.
Many of the stories that my family share when we get together involve the fun that we had with my parents, Jack and Beth King. Somehow over time, my dear dad became the brunt of many practical jokes and funny stories. But don’t think for one minute that he was entirely innocent. We all remember the story of how Mary Beth and John were playing upstairs in the Elmore addition house. They were very young. Dad oh-so-quietly climbed the stairs, holding a small brown bag that he had blown up. He got near the top of the stairs, still undetected, and popped the bag loudly. There was total silence for several seconds, and then little Johnny said, “Mary Beth did it!” Oh yes – when we’re all together, we love reminding Pastor John of his evil ways.
Dad was very kind and loving, and extremely patient. He was also quite smart, so we know that many of our jokes were probably no surprise to him. We suspect that he went along with them in order to give us a good time and a good laugh, even if it was at his expense. One of our earliest big jokes involved Diet Dr. Pepper. We girls were watching our figures and so we drank lots of Diet Dr. Pepper. Dad gave us a hard time about it, telling us that he should buy stock in the company, etc., etc. Unknown to him, we began saving all of our empty cans. Any time someone drank a can we would secretly take the can down to the basement and stash it away with all the other cans that we had saved. Finally, we thought we had saved enough for our plan. On a Saturday morning, when Dad had to go to work for the morning, we brought all the empty cans upstairs. We emptied the refrigerator in the kitchen, except for a gallon of milk, and filled it totally full of Diet Dr. Pepper cans. We put full cans in the front and hid the empty ones in the back. It was a beautiful sight! When Dad came home for lunch, we all managed to be hanging out in the kitchen. Mom asked Dad to get the milk out of the frig and when he opened the door, he gave a gasp and stepped backward as if he had been hit. For a second I wondered if we had gone too far! But he recovered and then we all had a very hilarious time.
There were several summers that Mom and Dad were able to rent a house at Myrtle Beach for a real family vacation. On one trip down to the beach, we stopped at a gas station and Dad laid his glasses on the car seat while he filled the car with gas. He told us over and over to be careful of his glasses………..and you can guess the rest…………he’s the one who sat on them and smashed them pretty flat. Yet instead of acting upset, he took it in stride and we all laughed and laughed, and forever after he was teased about those glasses.
It was also at the beach, if I remember correctly, that we started the squirt gun legend. Back then we only had the fairly standard size squirt guns – not the huge guns that are made now. We brought enough squirt guns for everyone to have one at the beach – except for Dad. He made a big production of not having a gun, even as we would sneak up and squirt him with no mercy. This continued when we returned home after our vacation. Dad eventually became sick and was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg. He would sit in his easy chair with his leg elevated, reading and resting as he waited to get well. And did we show him mercy then? Well, no! We would still, every so often, run in to shoot him with our squirt guns……..and the poor man couldn’t even run! One Sunday when we returned home from church, there sat Dad in his chair with his leg propped up……….wearing a raincoat………and as we entered the room, he held an open umbrella over his head. How typical of Dad……..playing along, and encouraging the fun and laughter.
We finally gave Dad his very own squirt gun at Christmas. We wrapped up a new squirt gun for each of us and opened them one by one, making sure that Dad opened his last. All the time that we were opening our guns, he would ask where his gun was. When he finally opened his very own squirt gun, he was so delighted and held it up to act like he was squirting us………….but we had removed the trigger! Oh, the laughter!
On another Christmas, we blew up a balloon and taped it inside a box. Then we carefully stuck straight pens through the box, facing the balloon inside but not touching it, put a lid on and gingerly wrapped it. On the outside of the box we wrote Dad’s name and then “Squeeze Before Opening!” The balloon would pop and we would be successful! We placed the box under the tree, not realizing that we had put it near a heat vent. One night during supper, the heat came on and soon we heard a POP! Our eyes were huge………and dear Dad didn’t act like he heard a thing. I wonder if he did but just wouldn’t spoil our fun? Later we re-did the whole balloon gift again, placed it away from the heater, and on Christmas morning had a wonderful time watching Dad squeeze the box and act very surprised.
We were a singing, musical family. On those long drives to the beach we would often sing, and somehow the song that we sang to torment Dad was “Oh It Rained, Rained, Rained.” We’d sing – “Oh it rained, rained, rained forty days and forty nights; and the animals came marching to the ark. Oh it rained, rained, rained forty days and forty nights, and the animals came marching to the ark. To the ark; Noah’s ark; and the animals came marching to the ark.” Then we would leave off one word at the end and sing it again – there was probably more to it than this small part, but this is what we all remembered over the years. Over and over we’d sing that song, leaving a word off each time…………and then start the whole thing over again. Dad acted tormented by this, and so we sang it again and again. And no matter how old we were, any time that we got together, we would sing this song……..in harmony……dragging it out, singing off key at the end and then finally hitting the right notes…………..all the while watching Dad act like he was going to leave the room, shaking his head and rolling his eyes…………..but loving every minute of it. No get-together was complete until we had sung “Oh It Rained.”
One weekend when Jan and I were in college, we plotted with Mom on a surprise for Dad. Jan and I went home on a Friday, arriving before Dad got there from work. We hid in Dad’s coat closet when he pulled into the driveway, and waited for him to open the closet to hang up his coat and put away his ever-present hat. He was taking forever! And while we waited, we heard him telling Mom how much he missed us and wished he could see us. I’ll never forget those words. Finally, Mom suggested that he hang his coat up and so when he opened the door we jumped out and he staggered back……….and once again I wondered if we had gone too far.
It was hilarious to see jokes backfire on Dad. On another weekend after the coat closet surprise, Dad hid in our closet when we came home. However, Mom came down to greet us in the driveway and whispered to us about Dad being in our closet. We stood in the living room and talked in whispers to Mom with exaggerated oh’s and ah’s that Dad couldn’t hear……….seeming to tell all sorts of exciting news……….for a long time………and finally we heard our closet door open and heard Dad muttering as he came down the hall and looked at Mom and said, “You told them, didn’t you?” What a guy!
I could write much more………about how he so disliked plastic zip-lock bags or wrapped cheese slices……..”Those are from the pit!” he’d exclaim. So Jan would sometimes make his lunch for work and tape the zip-lock bags closed even more and leave the cheese wrapped for him to undo. Dad would talk about having to hide under his desk to open his lunch because he never knew what would be in it! How we would rearrange his very precise desktop at home, moving his papers around and listening to him mutter as he put them back in order……….and we laughed. How we would hide his favorite candy, Hershey Kisses, all over the house in random places for him to find. Kathryn told me about the poster we hung inside his closet door that said, “Just when I figured out all life’s answers – they changed the questions!” So true for Dad as he endured life with five crazy kids!
Years later, when all of us were married with kids of our own, we were together for his birthday. And what were some of the gifts he opened? A pair of flattened glasses; an umbrella; a squirt gun with a missing trigger; a Diet Dr. Pepper can; a balloon. The memories that these items brought back were the true gifts. Gifts of such fun times, of laughter, of closeness, of the joy of family.
Tomorrow, May 2, is Dad’s birthday. He would have been 86. Dad’s in heaven now and has been for over 3 years. I can still see that sweet smile and hear his happy laughter. We miss all the fun times with him down here. During the family visitation at the funeral home, the five of us kids joined hands at his casket and yes, we sang “Oh It Rained” one more time to Dad. One of my nieces walked over and for a second she covered his ears. So sweet and funny…….to us. And we ended by making it through one verse of his very favorite hymn – “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.”
Happy Birthday, Dad! Thanks for teaching us how to laugh…………..and how to trust. I hope that we can sing to you in heaven…………..and laugh………..for all eternity!