Last week, along with my students, I was thinking about irony and how it can often be a useful strategy in constructing plots. Here, then, is an example from my forthcoming memoir, Gone the Hard Road, offered up here in hopes of being useful to anyone wishing to add resonance to their narratives.
One day, I told my mother I wanted a kite. She and my father were going to a grade school basketball game in Claremont that evening. This was the school where my mother, just the year before, had still been teaching.
“We’ll show ‘em,” my father said. “We’ll walk into that gym as big as day.”
I can’t imagine my mother was keen on the idea, but my father said they were going, so indeed they were. I was staying with my Grandma Martin, who lived with us on the farm. I was sick with a cold, otherwise I would have gone to the game, too. I loved basketball. I loved the players with their white shoes. I loved the gleaming hardwood floor. I loved the noise the ball made—that swish of the net—when it went cleanly through the hoop. And I loved the cheerleaders with their white sweaters and the red “C’s” on the front, and the red and white streamers of their pom-poms. It was at one of these games that I first saw what, for some reason, I thought was called a kite. I’d seen some student organization selling these items for a fundraiser. The best I can remember now is that what they were selling was some sort of home-made boat: a piece of Styrofoam cut the proper shape. A mast made of Popsicle sticks, a sail of some sort of material. Perfect for floating in the bathtub I didn’t have because we didn’t have running water in our farmhouse. Something I had no real use for, and something I’d misnamed as well. I only knew it pleased me, and I wanted it.
My mother said she would bring me one, and I couldn’t wait until she came home so I could have it.
“Here it is,” she said when she and my father came into our farmhouse. She was holding in her hand exactly what I’d asked her to bring me—a kite—but I was crestfallen and angry with myself because I hadn’t known what to call the thing I really wanted.
“What’s that?” I said.
“It’s a kite,” my mother said. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
I began to whine. “I wanted a kite,” I said.
“This is a kite,” my mother said.
“But I wanted a kite,” I said. “A real kite.”
My mother stood there mystified. My father, irritated because I was talking in italics and had obviously taken leave of my senses, said he could give me something to cry about—something real to cry about—if that’s what I wanted.
I knew what I wanted. I’d just gotten confused about what to call it. I have no idea why I’d decided that the Styrofoam ship was called a kite, but I had, and now I was in the midst of an absurd situation in which I was whining about wanting a kite when I was obviously holding exactly that in my hands.
This was, perhaps, one of my first lessons in irony. Someone wanted something, or intended something, and what they got or what they created was the exact opposite. That turn—that surprise—that was what could make something very funny, or very sad, or sometimes a little of both.