It was one of the last times the Runkle side of Heather’s family was able to have a winter reunion. With Mom-Mom Runkle’s health issues, travel, especially in the cold winter months, was particularly difficult. But it was at one of those last reunions, at Heather’s Uncle Brian and Aunt Rose’s house, that I found myself sitting with Mom-Mom Runkle and looking with her at one of that year’s novelty Christmas gifts, the giving of which has been a tradition in Heather’s family.
This one was an animatronic Country Bears toy—you pressed a button, and the Country Bears figures, which were arranged holding musical instruments, began to move as they played a holiday tune. I pressed the button and held it up for Mom-Mom Runkle to examine. When the Country Bears figures started to move and play their song she said, “Oh my! How do they do that?” I looked her in the eyes and said, “Practice.” Mom-Mom Runkle paused, then let out a joyful laugh that seemed to echo throughout the room.
Now, you can tell a lot about a person by his or her laugh. Some laughs have a tone of derisiveness about them (recall the way Nelson, the classroom bully on the Simpsons, laughs). Other laughs are only for the purpose of saying “I’m smart, I get it” (a laugh I would hear a lot in the audience whenever I saw a Jean-Luc Goddard film at the old Biograph theater in DC). Some laughs are creepy and even frightening (think Ted Cruz). Then there are those who don’t have a laugh. (Has anyone ever seen Donald Trump laugh? He smirks, he grins, he leers, but has he ever let loose with anything resembling a genuine laugh. I’m not the first person to note that laughing might be among the human behaviors he fails to exhibit).
Anyway, Mom-Mom Runkle had a laugh, and her laugh wasn’t anything like that of the aforementioned persons. It was a genuine laugh, without a trace of self-consciousness. Not everyone gets my sense of humor, but Mom-Mom Runkle did, and to hear her laugh in response to my remark was like taking a spur of the moment hit of nitrous from a can of whipped cream.
Mom-Mom Runkle had one of those laughs that you remember. It was a good laugh, a great laugh, the sort of laugh that brings with it a sense of revelation, even, and as such was a true expression of the essence of things, destroying all the bullshit in its way.
Like the rest of us, she wasn’t perfect. But I can only hope that one day, if only once, I might laugh in a way that rings just as true, and that it might echo through whatever room I find myself in. Or, if I’m outside, somewhere in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes frighteningly backwards stretch of valley, I’d like to think that my laugh could echo off the mountains on the horizon, then, like a clamorous flock of dark birds, swoon back up toward the sky. And, I’d like to think that soon again, I’ll be able to let loose with a laugh that feels like something more than temporary refuge from a time of fear and apprehension. I’d like to think that, once again, it will feel like a home in which I, my family, my friends, and a lot of other people from all sorts of places who consider themselves Americans might dwell.
Photograph by Jose Padua