The joke is always some variation on us running around the house naked, shouting, “I got the balloon!”
By Jamie Borgan
It’s two days after Christmas. I’m sitting at a dining room table that’s been stretched to accommodate my friend Teresa’s extended family while, half comatose from overconsumption of sugar, we try to corral fourteen people into playing Turbo Cranium.
Teresa’s nephew, Stephen, a raconteur of exceeding charm and humor, is in the midst of telling a high-powered anecdote about his brother and some Rice Krispie treats, when he suddenly stops and points to his parents, who happen to be sitting on either side of me. His father on my right is eating a piece of cherry pie directly from the tin, making eye contact only with his fork, while his mother, on my left, lists to one side of her chair, red-faced and teary-eyed, as she laughs to the point of breathlessness at the antics of her son.
Though we never developed an actual matrix to describe our mother’s laughter, we would happily call out “Stage Four!” when she crossed the line from a constant, rolling laugh to a more strained, sparsely spaced eruption that almost sounded painful.
I recognize that face: the face of a mother struck to the core by the unbelievable hilarity of her child, heaving and gasping nearly to the point of pain as her child watches her mother crescendo from giggle to guffaw to chortle to full body quivering complete with shaking shoulders and outbursts of joy that sound almost like sobs.
When I was younger, my sisters and I attempted to describe my mother’s laughter progression in sequential steps, as if there were gear ratios that changed as she became more and more bemused. We would watch with giddy, puppet-master pleasure, as something would set her laughing, and like a boxer exploiting the weakness of her opponent, we would dig in when her funny bone had been tickled, coaxing out deeper and deeper layers of laughter, no matter what the price to our own dignity.
Though we never developed an actual matrix to describe our mother’s laughter, we would happily call out “Stage Four!” when she crossed the line from a constant, rolling laugh to a more strained, sparsely spaced eruption that almost sounded painful. This volcanic hilarity was accompanied by a shaking belly that vibrated so much when my mom laughed that my cousin took to calling out “cue the stomach” like a film director when my mom reached the point that her stomach was moving independently of the rest of her body. Frequently, we would end up just as helplessly convulsed, tossing our heads to one side and clapping or pounding the table in slow motion while we closed our eyes and gasped for air.
My women friends make me laugh, and they let me make them laugh. But no women surrender so completely to the uncontrollable force of laughter like our mothers. My nephew, even at two, clearly understands there is power in his mother’s anger and dominance even in her nurturing and care-taking. But he also gets that he is in complete control when he charms her and opens up the unadulterated adoration that flows when she laughs.
Despite her best laid plans, last week, he somehow found a way to wriggle away from her attempts to put on his diaper and pajamas. Tasting freedom, he grabbed the balloons left over from his birthday party and began running around the house, naked, yelling with unfettered joy, “I got the balloon! I got the balloon!”
Pajamas? Long forgotten. While he reveled in his liberation, we all sat back and roared, the notion of trying to control his behavior completely subsumed by our laughter.
This total and absolute submission to joy might be some of the purest love in the universe. In letting themselves laugh to the point that they can’t sit upright at a table, our mothers affirm that they trust us and recognize that, no matter what their motivation for bringing us here, we belong at that table and that one of our most essential purposes is to bring delight to the world.
I remember a good friend of mine once saying that she knew her brother-in-law loved her sister because he always acted like he hadn’t heard her stories, even though she had told the same stories over and over again. I think our mothers harbor this love to their core. On some level, I think we’ve all been telling our mothers the same joke since we were born, and the joke is more or less always a variation on us running around the house naked yelling “I got the balloon!”