Saturday, May 25, 2024

Opinion | I hope I love anything as much as my grandma hated ‘The Sound of Music’

Opinion | I hope I love anything as much as my grandma hated ‘The Sound of Music’

“The trouble with most people is that they worry about the wrong things. Pornography, for instance.”

Those words aren’t mine. They’re my grandmother’s, from a column she wrote for the Noblesville (Ind.) Daily Ledger. Her name was Georgianne Neal, and those two lines should give you a sense of what she was like, but I am going to try anyway. When I think of her, I think of her laughing, throwing her head back for a hearty cackle.

She wouldn’t want this to be sentimental, and she would want it to be short. I don’t think she would like how much time I am about to spend on “The Sound of Music,” but unfortunately she is not around to offer edits, and I want this to be funny.

Because she was so funny. Funny generally ages badly, unless it’s a joke about farts. Fortunately, she loved jokes about farts. She loved jokes. She had an ear for stories. One of her favorites was about a friend who began every speech with the words “Hi, I’m John Clough” until he was called upon to deliver a prayer and began it by introducing himself to God (“Hi, I’m John Clough”). She called lunch “beer and wine time.” She loved the state of Indiana. She loved obscure Indiana history. She loved Santa Fe and Willa Cather and William Faulkner and Lew Wallace and Methodist hymns.

She was surprisingly eager to try out new technology. She was active on AOL Instant Messenger and was one of my first friends there. She had a robot from the Sharper Image named Emilio that was supposed to ferry drinks on a tray, but its robotic arm was broken, and it would roll toward you in a stately fashion, spilling your drink on the floor. Later, we got her Google Home and programmed it to play “God Save the Queen” if anyone came into the house and said “I’m a burglar.” She loved gag gifts. She had a pillow that showed the Sistine Chapel scene of Michelangelo’s Adam and God reaching for one another and that played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” when you wound it up.

Every year at Christmas, we watched the Kennedy Center Honors, and some years we watched “The Sound of Music,” which she could not stand. One of her great delights was watching things she could not stand, and “The Sound of Music” was at the top of that list. “There are all those idiot children,” she would say when the von Trapps appeared. “You know, standing and listening to someone as they sing is a really stupid thing.”

“Do we know why his wife died?” my mom once asked, pointing at Captain von Trapp.

“Because he kept singing,” my grandma chimed in.

She was one of my first, and best, audiences. As a child, I inflicted some of my earliest attempts at political humor on her. I remember performing an original song called “You’ve Got to Knock Before You Enter,” which culminated with the verse: “Ms. Tripp had this problem! That’s how it all began! She didn’t go a knockin’ before she went a-walkin’ and that certainly wasn’t her plan!” (To this day, I don’t know what 10-year-old me thought Linda Tripp had done. It certainly wasn’t that.) I inflicted Elvis impersonations on her. (I had the wig on backward, and my grandma did not know I was Elvis.) Yet she encouraged me! Whenever I wanted to know if what I had written was good or funny, the refrain was: Ask Grandma. If I could make her laugh, I knew I had something. She was a merciless editor in the best way, and her cuts were nearly always right.

Sentimentality made her gag, so she can skip this paragraph, if she is reading along. She seldom talked about herself despite a stunning roster of accomplishments. I didn’t even know about all the columns she had written until I was myself writing a column and she turned up with some yellowed clippings. She had done what you did when you were a smart, hilarious woman born in 1930: She married, raised two daughters and never finished the novel she always said she wanted to write (though she kept telling me that if I ever wanted to write a novel, she knew just what it should be about).

I find that the times I laugh the hardest, the real belly laughs, the ones where tears come to my eyes and I keep laughing until my sides ache, are at things that are utterly unintelligible to people who were not in that particular room at that particular moment. This is how I feel now. The funniest people I know are the ones who are most generous with their laughter. Perhaps that’s why I always remember my grandma laughing. She was the funniest one in the room. I’m grateful I got to spend more than 30 years in the room with her.

She died this week. She was 92. The next time you see “The Sound of Music,” please turn it off in her honor.

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