A Day in the Laugh of... a Funeral Crasher

Instead of working for the survival of the fittest,
we should be working for the survival of the wittiest—
then we can all die laughing.
—Lily Tomlin

My grandmothers were comedians. Not everyone can say that, but I can. They both experienced serious, life-altering heartache and loss in their lives—I know because I heard the stories or read about it in their memoirs. However, by the time I landed on the planet, I didn’t really have a sense of their troubles because they were either laughing about funny experiences of the past or creating new ones.

 In Cora's early years, she resembled a young Lily Tomlin.

In Cora's early years, she resembled a young Lily Tomlin.

Let me introduce you to my maternal grandmother, Cora “Irene” Cunninghame. You might be wondering why her middle name is in quotes. The answer is simple. A middle name was not bestowed upon Cora at birth so when she achieved adulthood, she simply decided to add Irene to her name without taking legal action. No problem for her, but since her death, there have been plenty of headaches for genealogists who try to link her up to the online family pedigree chart. Ugh!

In Cora's early years, she resembled a young Lily Tomlin, especially when Lily played the role of Ernestine, the telephone switchboard operator. Like Lily, my Grandma Cora was often in costume—always playing the part of someone the world was about to meet for the first and only time. Take for example, the day Cora showed up dressed as a hippy-gypsy at a formal dinner party hosted by her brother Merrill and his wife to celebrate their own 25th wedding anniversary. If you look closely at the photo, you can see how she tried to blackout her teeth with a blue crayon.

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I learned at a young age to never expect the ordinary when visiting Grandma Cora. When I was 16 my girlfriend, Linda, and I travelled from Durango, Colorado to visit my grandma in Sebastopol, California. I cautioned Linda to be prepared for anything because the odds were high that the first person we would meet after crossing Grandma’s threshold would not be anyone I recognized. It turned out I was wrong…the whole fiasco began even BEFORE we entered her home. 

 Home for wayward girls!

Home for wayward girls!

Grandma lived in a small two-bedroom house that sat on an intersection where three streets converged.  Grandma had two large picture windows that came together, forming a corner of the living room. When she sat on her couch, she could watch who was coming and going from all directions. Well when we drove up to the house, we were shocked to see a very large homemade sign in the window that read, “Home for Wayward Girls.” What?! We were far from wayward, yet we both felt like covering our heads with our jackets to hide our identities—just like you see when famous people in trouble are escorted to and from their cars. When we entered the house, an old hag with curlers in her hair warmly greeted us with a lively southern accent. I turned to Linda and said, “I warned you!”

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When my husband, Marty, and I were engaged, we travelled from northern Utah to Sebastopol so Grandma could meet her future grandson-in-law. When we arrived no one answered the door, but it was unlocked. We opened it and I called out, “Grandma?” She didn’t answer. So we walked into the entryway and called out again. The only thing I could hear was heavy breathing and grunting noises. I thought maybe she was hurt! Adrenalin starting pumping through my system thinking we had an emergency situation on our hands. Just as I was about to investigate the rest of the house, a black hairy creature jumped out from the hallway. A gorilla! When I started breathing again, I turned to Marty and said, “Meet my grandma.” With a lumbering gorilla gait, she approached Marty and started picking through his hair looking for critters. (Yes that’s Marty with a perm and a mustache.)

 Happy Birthday Mona?  But of course. 

Happy Birthday Mona?  But of course. 

When Grandma Cora turned 65, her family and friends organized a surprise birthday party for her. My Uncle Bill ordered a cake and instructed the baker to write the words, “Happy Birthday Mom” on it. When he arrived to pick up the cake, it was obvious the person who took the order did not hear him correctly because it said, “Happy Birthday, Mona.” The baker was apologetic and offered to fix it on the spot, but Uncle Bill replied, “No, this will be perfect!” And it was. For it created yet another day in the laugh of Cora that still offers giggles decades later. 

By her 65th birthday, Grandma had earned a new title and was affectionately referred to as Crazy Cora.  Remember, Lily Tomlin said the goal is to die laughing, well Crazy Cora is the only one I know who has done that for sure. In fact, she was still cracking jokes AFTER her death in 1995. How you ask? Grandma made sure she was the featured commentator at her own funeral! She had produced an audio recording of her farewell speech prior to her death. When my uncle walked up to the pulpit, inserted the cassette into the tape player, and adjusted the microphone to aim at the machine, everyone smiled and chuckled, shook their heads, and in unison thought,  “That’s Cora for you!”  Following are excerpts from her talk:

“It’s good to see ya! It’s been a heck of a long time since I have seen some of you. Well those benches are pretty hard and we’re going to be here awhile talking about how great I am, so just sit back, slip off your shoes, and make yourself comfortable. I want you to really enjoy this! You’re lucky there isn’t a speaker looking down at you…because you can close your eyes and only you and I know you’re asleep.

Some of you might be shocked at this somewhat out of the ordinary ceremony. But if you really stop to think, everyone here today is either my friend or relative, and you all know that if I can do something really different, or if I can get some attention, or bring on a laugh, that is what I’m gonna do! This is my day and I decided I didn’t want anyone else standing up here saying how great I was and telling lies. Whatever lying there is to be done around here, I’ll do it.

It’s so nice to have a captive audience and it’s a wonder some of you haven’t already gone out the door… Hey you! Come back here! … Well we’re going to have a great visit here because I don’t have anything else to do! I won’t keep you long because there just might be a lot of good food over at the house. So I’m inviting you all to go see if I’m right. I want to hear a lot of laughter—don’t disappoint! Thanks for everything. I love you. See you soon…well maybe not soon but I’ll be lookin’ for you and I’ll have everything ready for your arrival. Goodbye.”

Crazy Cora really knew how to put fun into a (fun)eral.’ It’s been over 20 years since I listened to my copy of her service. I had to chuckle when I saw the label on the cassette tape. It reads, “Mona’s Memorial.”

These are only a few of Crazy Cora’s antics, but I hope as you read, either your own “Day in the Laugh of…” moments came to your memory, or you feel inspired to create some new ones. Keep funny alive!

(Note: To learn more about the importance of laughter in our lives see chapter 33, “Humor Me,” in my book titled Sacred Soul-Space: Making Room in Your Life for What You Have to Offer This World. I know by personal experience even serious issues, such as infertility, can produce laugh out loud moments!)