My cousin likes to tell the story of the time when she was a girl, about ten years old, and she was on vacation on Sanibel Island with her parents. They went to a gator farm, and there she was given a stick with a marshmallow on the end and told to hold it out to an alligator and the alligator would come and take the marshmallow from the end of the stick.
I’ve seen the photographs. I’ve seen my cousin crouching at the water’s edge, holding out the stick, less than three feet away from an alligator, just waiting for him to snap up the marshmallow.
This is a story that holds all there is to hold about my cousin’s complicated relationship with her parents. This is a story fraught with tension, the sort that comes from no one understanding the danger that the little girl is in—has been put in by her parents, who believe this is an experience she’ll never forget.
And they’re right; she never has. When she tells the story, she plays it for a joke. She points out that her father told her to hold still so he could get a good picture. I’ve even seen a photograph that someone else took, and there’s my uncle crouching a few feet behind my cousin, his camera to his eye. “Hold it,” I imagine him saying. “Hold still. I want to get the right angle for this shot.” We get a great laugh out of this story, but I know the pain behind the humor. My cousin doesn’t acknowledge it when she tells the story, but I can feel it in the facts. A sweet little girl put in harm’s way by parents who wanted her to experience feeding a marshmallow to an alligator. What the photos don’t tell you is that my cousin could never quite please my aunt and uncle. She strived to do so. She does to this day, even though she knows she’ll never succeed. Imagine her as that little girl, bravely facing that gator, making her offering, eager to do what her parents asked of her.
Once, when she told the story, she said, “I don’t know why they didn’t give me a longer stick.”
My aunt, with impeccable timing, and a wit so sharp it cut, said, “Well, you couldn’t have handled a longer stick.”
We roared with laughter at that because it was a line that was so insistent at avoiding the real issue while at the same time proving the pain that lies at the heart of the story.
There’s a lesson about humor in all of this. The human condition is funny when the people in the midst of the story aren’t aware of the humor and don’t call attention to the pain it’s masking. The details do the work. “Well, you couldn’t have handled a longer stick,” my aunt said, and we laughed and laughed at the thought that she and my uncle, in the process of looking out for my cousin by not giving her a longer stick, justified what they were doing and ignored the danger of it. The ironic tension between what’s said and what’s not gives this line a humor counter-weighted with gravity. My aunt’s words, make me laugh while at the same time, they make me cringe.
My cousin keeps these photos on her refrigerator. She looks at them every day. She says to me, and she’s dead serious when she does, “I look at them, and I think how lucky I am to be alive.”