Parental Jokes

A few years ago, my siblings and I bought a speakerphone for my folks’ Christmas present. I think my brother was the one who came up with the idea for it–probably because of the typical story repetition that goes on when you call home and your folks aren’t both on the line. You know how it is. You spend half an hour chit-chatting with your dad, and then he says, “Here’s your mom!” And you spend not another half hour, but another hour, because first you have to repeat all the news you told your dad, and then you think of new stuff to say during or after that. My mom usually gets exclamatory, and then Dad hears her exclaiming about something I didn’t tell him about, and they have a protracted What’s that all about? and I’ll tell you in a minute, Al side conversation.

Hence the speakerphone.

Despite the foregoing narrative, speakerphones do not ride on white chargers to the rescue of repetition, miscommunication, and (only slightly) wounded feelings. Above all they should come with a feedback warning. They should also come with another bright red sticker alerting you that use of the speakerphone will make your phone call sound as if it’s taking place inside an empty propane tanker. The tinny reverberations result in more repetition than ever was necessary with one-on-one telephone calls. And if you’re calling from a cell phone, don’t do it in public. The law of sympathetic telephone conversation volume (i.e., if your conversant partner is chatting loudly, you will equal or surpass their volume in unconscious sympathy)  is magnified tenfold when cellphones are used in conjunction with speakerphones.

And yet…there is something magical about conversing with both my parents at once, something that even the most cheaply constructed speakerphone can’t quite kill. They have that comfortable old-marrieds rhythm that is affectionate and combative and hilarious to witness. It’s also difficult to reproduce, but I’m going to try here. Recently A. and I went visiting to both our old homesteads. At one point we were driving somewhere with my folks (probably to visit more family, or possibly an antique store, since our hometowns are overflowing with them), and the subject of jokes and the art of the telling them somehow came up. My mother accused my dad of wearing out particular jokes, especially the good old interrupting cow. My dad looked at her and said:


No one responded, because we knew. Dad looked at me in the rearview mirror with twinkling eyes and repeated, “Knock-knock.”

“Al, how stupid do you think we are?” Mom said.


“Who’s there?” I said.

“Interrupting cow!”

“You’re telling it wrong,” Mom interrupted. “You’re supposed to say it when she says, who’s there? You screwed it up.”

“Jackie, you’re screwing it up. Interrupting cow!”

“All right, all right, interrupting cow– ”

“Whoooooo–er, mooo!” Dad finished.

I take it back. The speakerphone can’t kill them, but it certainly doesn’t do them justice, either. It’s time for me to accept that the only real solution is Skype.


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