Sometimes saying ‘I love you’ is sharing a riotous laugh

My brother and his family are packing up to leave our holiday cookout when Josie, my niece, hears a song on the radio and runs to turn it up.

We are in the kitchen, after the seconds have been picked at, the dishes cleared and washed, the leftovers parceled out. My mom is about to take Whitney, our mercurial toy poodle, for a walk, when Josie proclaims “That’s my jam” and cranks up Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” proceeding to shake hers for all they are worth.

For the girl who for two years in a row asked for hip-hop dance lessons and then played shy during every recital, barely willing to show us her moves in private let alone onstage, the moment is revelatory.

Josie can dance. Yes, she hams it up, exaggerating some movements with spastic glee, but she has rhythm. My brother Joachim whips out his iPhone and begins taking a video over her flimsy protests. Once I get over my surprise, I begin imitating Josie’s hand and hip motions — I’ve always loved Shakira’s hit and it’s still, after all these years, a favorite in my Zumba class — but it isn’t long before I’m doing my own thing.

My mom, meanwhile, has started dancing, too, shimmying and twirling around. And pretty soon, my brother puts down his phone and joins in, wild and fevered with an energy that often inspires others to get to their feet when he’s out at festivals or other events.

By this point, Whitney is plain bewildered and Betsy, my brother’s wife, is standing at the edge of the kitchen, alternating between laughter and her own hesitant attempts to “feel the conga” and move like the sultry Colombian singer. We all waver between earnestness and goofy delirium.

And, for me, that spontaneous dance party right in my mom’s kitchen is the best five minutes of my entire day. By the end, we are all breathless and brimming with laughter, and the flurry of goodbyes that follows is charged with an extra sweetness.

It is no secret I adore my family or how close we are. We have dinner together almost every Sunday, vacation together yearly and are always willing to pile into the car for a quick day trip. We support each other through the hard times and my mom remains a beacon of comfort whenever one of us is down. As my brother and I have matured, it’s beautiful to know we’ve become her consolation and inspiration, too, as we are all mindful of nurturing our interdependence.

But I have to admit the times my love for my family feels its fullest and most vibrant is when we are being downright silly.

When Josie was little and her antics amused me or she was being deliberately absurd, I used to teasingly tell her she’d fallen from the silly tree. But how could she be anything less in a family where laughter is as much a measure of affection as any act of tenderness?

For Mother’s Day this year, we traveled to Cape May as we always do. After dinner at a restaurant on the bay, my brother, Betsy, Josie and I strolled to the end of the dock just as the sun was setting (my mom, who doesn’t swim, chose to forgo the rickety, swaying slats). As we chatted and joked around, Joachim and I began singing “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” a song Josie had never heard, so he called it up on his iPhone. And there, with the sun tipping us in gold and running a ragged fire across the bay, we warbled along to Otis Redding, with choreographed accompaniment from Josie and Betsy shrieking with laughter trying to film the entire episode.

From the dock, a man who had just pulled in his boat watched us, probably thinking we were drunk or high or simply out of our minds. We didn’t care. When the song, and therefore our impromptu performance, came to an end, we ran back to the parking lot, a giddy, jabbering gust. As we passed our audience of one sitting in his truck, my brother turned to him and teased, “You’ve never sang ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ while on a dock before?” He shook his head with a bemused smile.

And I thought only of how grateful I am for those moments that bind us in such undiluted joy, and for our embracing of a language some discard or forget with adulthood. In my family, the roots of such comic and frivolous fun run deep, going back, at least in my memory, to my mom’s parents, who taught me sometimes there’s no greater way to say “I love you” than in sharing a riotous laugh.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times


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