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Lessons in laughter (04/23/2006)

Some of the most treasured memories of my childhood are times spent with my Aunt Ellen out on the Wollin's Bethany homestead. She taught us Lewis kids how to play canasta, Chinese checkers, and rummy, not to mention words that sounded like German (but that was never substantiated). Most of the time we laughed together.

Nearly deaf all of her life often plunged her into a secluded world of her own. Her quick wit can catch one off-guard. She breaks out in rollicking song or laughter spontaneously.

A young-at-heart 81 years of age, Ellen has thrived in her Winona Home and Community Option's house. Our family is blessed that those at HCO are keeping that warm smile on her face and easing her out of a silent world and into the community.

Her special friend from HCO's staff, Kateri told me on a recent visit that one of Ellen's new pet remarks is, "I'm no genius but I'm not stupid!" Kateri and Ellen go on regular excursions all over the countryside. She's become at ease visiting new places, shopping for clothes, and doing lunch.

Ellen is genuine. There's often a glint of mischief in her eyes. She once played a harmonica and danced a jig. In a moment, however, a thought about, or affection toward someone fills her with gratitude, and tears well up as she openly expresses her feelings.

Back on "the farm," there was always a favorite kitty among new litters. She was recently given a house cat, gray and white, with long, soft fur. As Auntie proudly introduced "Tinkerbell" to me, the fat cat wasn't interested, lazily curling up on the floor with a big yawn. After numerous attempts, Tinkerbell flashed me the evil eye and scooted up the stairs. Maybe she has a sixth sense for people who can't warm up to felines.

Laughter is a universal language. It's catchy, like a yawn. Comedians seem to be getting nastier and more brazen. Samuel Clemens and Thoreau may have been stepping stones for other humorists who continue to bash politicians and government. (Terrorists and other enemies thrive on disparity among U.S. citizens and political parties.)

Most of us are familiar with Samuel Clemens' adventures of Mark Twain on the Mississippi River. The rest of the story: there are 14 sets of his writings. Twain's books are still being banned in some states in the U.S. today. Most of his work was published posthumously, after his death in April of 1910. Bad investments left him bankrupt and alone.

Today, in the style of Clemens, sardonic sarcasm, mudslinging remarks and "scandal updates" aimed at political figures rage on in the name of entertainment. On the other side of the funny bone, humor shared with family, personal jokes and good times with lifelong friends are most enduring. Foul-mouthed comics come and go.

There's one more thing, a personal confession really. A talented and congenial teacher taught during my years at Lewiston High School. Mr. Joe Rivers was physically crippled, with one hand paralyzed and a pronounced limp. He was the target of cruel pranks and snickers on a daily basis.

This brilliant man endured this abuse with a smile on his face and, what I believe now, an ache in his heart. Truthfully, he was far too intelligent for the likes of us. I can say that I never did anything to Mr. Rivers, but that wouldn't be the truth. I laughed along with the crowd, and was glad for a reprieve during algebra or geometry class.

There are many lessons to learn about laughter as we mature. Ironically, I now have Parkinson's disease and slowly shuffle as I walk, one hand rigidly bent. I've thought of Mr. Rivers many times, humbled by my own limitations and ashamed of disrespect shown him in our school.

Those who rise above disability have character others lack...their gifts impart joy. 


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