"Every behaviour is a commitment to something" Werner Erhard

Aunty Mary's Laugh

Years ago, some work friends had come back to my parents’ house prior to us going out. I was 22. We were chatting in the kitchen when the front door burst open with shouts of “Hello, hello, are you in?"

My friends froze but I stood submissively to receive “a big squeeze” from my Aunty Mary, my mum’s oldest sister. After the hug, she held me at arm’s length, pronounced that I would lose my hair like my dad, turned on her stiletto and clicked back towards the door. My slack-jawed friends were acknowledged with a wink as she proceeded to the lounge. At the door, almost as an afterthought, she commanded, “Coffee, James! Your Uncle Jim will have one too” before hurling herself into my parents’ life for the evening.

I, of course, picked up the kettle.

Aunty Mary was big. She walked tall; she had big hair; she held imperious opinions about global issues and she was loud. Her love was never in question. All my cousins had warm memories of big bowls of delicious soup and dessert after tea. But we would also shudder at the collective trauma of, having displeased her, being chased up the stairs with the slipper and the promise of, “I’ll murder you!” When Aunty Mary baby-sat, you listened very carefully for how it was going to be.

Aunty Mary had a big laugh. Her head would tilt back and she would roar from her belly, often clapping her hands. She laughed a lot and at small things and things that weren’t really funny at all. It appeared that she just enjoyed laughing.

Some people questioned the authenticity of Aunty Mary’s laugh. “That’s put on,” they would whisper or “She’s just drawing attention.” They would speak as if they were offended or that she had committed a crime. I was either too enthralled or too timid to collude. Besides, I loved Aunty Mary and thought her personal conduct was above my likes and dislikes.

Even so, I had to admit that the laugh was not an automatic reflex to her finding anything funny. It was wilful, conscious and controlled. It made me think that there was something here to notice.

Years went past. Work and travel meant that I saw Aunty Mary a lot less than I would have liked. My mum’s and my granny’s deaths took their toll on her health. One day, on a visit to see my Dad, he mentioned that Aunty Mary had been taken into hospital. I went to see her.

She was struggling. Her arthritis was crumbling her body. She couldn’t speak very well; just enough to tell me that she had signed a “do not resuscitate” order. She was exhausted. I wondered at this tiny old woman in the bed, incredulous about how this could be the same giant who patrolled my childhood.

A nurse came into the room. “Hello, hen,” Aunty Mary offered. “How was your night, last night?” The nurse was recovering from a party and started to tell us a story of an incident she had found funny. She wasn’t a natural story teller and gave away the punchline in her first sentence. Her anecdote was not funny at all. But Aunty Mary laughed. Despite the pain in her throat and the fact that she was dying, she laughed. The giant laughed.

I was transported back 19 years to my brother’s wedding. I was the best man, very self-conscious and required to make a speech that would entertain the assembled guests. I was trembling and my first sentence, which had been a zinger in my bedroom, garbled its way from my mouth and limped into the room. There was a second of tortuous silence then Aunty Mary laughed. Aunty Mary laughed at all my jokes that afternoon; loudly and wildly disproportionate to the quality of the humour. That day, she schooled a room in how to support a 24 year-old trying to make a best man’s speech.

Maybe it was the final triumphant 5 minutes of that speech, that taught me I could be a trainer.

The day after the hospital visit, I was back at Cantle, my training Centre on the loch. The place was empty; the team were on holiday or away and I felt the chill of being the sole person in a big house. I made myself a cup of tea. As I wandered back to the library, cup in hand, I heard Aunty Mary’s laugh resound along the corridor. It warmed me and made me smile. Dad called me half an hour later to let me know that Aunty Mary had just died.

Uncle Jim asked me to give the eulogy at Aunty Mary’s funeral and I recounted all of this to the family. I agreed that Aunty Mary’s laugh was “put on.” She laughed, not because something was funny but because someone was trying to be funny. She liked a world where there were jokers, teasers, people laughing and fun balanced out some of life’s trials. Aunty Mary laughed as a commitment to a happier world.

I turn 50 this month and one of the better changes that has come with age is the ability to understand people’s aberrant behaviours more kindly than before. No one gets up in the morning and says, “Gee, I think I’ll screw up today!” Our worst behaviours were once useful, once appropriate and once meaningful to us.

Or, like Aunty Mary, they are designed to create a world that is happier to live in.

These days, when someone garners the courage to mutter their worst confession, my reflex question is, “Now what is that a commitment to?” And inconveniently, I find a smile tensing my lips and feel a small but insistent urge to laugh with them.