Funniest family members

Humor sustains us in difficult times, and I have become profoundly appreciative when my family makes me laugh.

Upon reflection, I find my dad, father-in-law and middle brother, Lee, the funniest in my family, each in their own way. Dad has a penchant for remembering and telling stories and jokes. Lanny was a quipster who loved to poke holes in pretense. Lee has a deadpan sarcasm that catches me off guard.

Dad’s story and joke telling emerged from years of practice. Whether it was an illustration for a sermon or an icebreaker for a senior adult lunch program, Dad has developed a comic timing that makes his stories attention-grabbing and relatable.

Dad excels at the set up. I’ve been had so many times by stories that ended up being jokes that I’ve grown suspicious every time he starts his wind up. Even if I’m not fooled, I’m hooked, listening for the tell-tale signs that what I’m hearing is fiction.

“Hey, did you hear we had a sinkhole off Highway 27 this week?”

“No! Really?”

“Yeah, the police are looking into it.”

Larry Wallace in a red shirt with nautical scenes and a camo visor with built in gray and white hair standing up all over.
Dad sported this “poor man’s toupee” for comedic affect many times around friends and family, especially the grandkids.

It’s the plausibility that piques my interest. I think I’m hearing legitimate news that’s both interesting and potentially impactful to my parents and their neighbors. I’m all in until the punch line washes over me, and I realize he got me again.

He did this to my brothers and me when we were growing up so many times I’m convinced he spent each night before bed plotting how he could “pull our leg,” as my Granny described it. It took me many years to figure out that Reader’s Digest was one of his sources. We had a subscription most of the time I was at home, and he learned how to make those stories his own by changing one or two key details to fit our setting.

Even when his stories were real, they had a humor that tickled our funny bone. Whether it was his exploits in school, tricks he played on his brother, pranks from his days in the Air Force or just odd incidents during his tenure at American Airlines as a mechanic, we enjoyed his humorous stories when he got on a roll.

One of the most memorable and significant to the circumstances of my parents getting together was how my Mom broke things off with him while he was stationed in Guam with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. They had met but weren’t necessarily exclusive before he shipped out. My mom learned that he had gone out with someone else and decided to send him a not-so-subtle message to express her feelings about the development.

As Dad tells it, one day he received a package in the mail marked “Cookies.” Excited to receive some comfort food from home, he ripped into it only to discover a voodoo doll stuck full of pins. When he got home, they got together, and the rest is history. His punchline?

“Beware of care packages labeled ‘Cookies’!”

Lanny Barron passed away in 2013, but during the 16 years I knew him, he gave me plenty of opportunity to enjoy his brand of humor. By the time I met him, his hearing wasn’t good, so his participation in group conversations could be limited. But one-on-one, he could carry on a conversation easily. He loved weaving in stories and jokes, always with a wink and a smile for punctuation.

His quips were my favorite. They were always so on-the-nose that I couldn’t help but doubt they were original to him. For example, his description of his sister-in-law, who always kept up with and often contributed to the town’s informal news network: “She may not get it right, but she gets it first.”

Or, when he got to hold his grandsons for the first time, he said of all three: “He’s a handsome young man, just like his granddaddy.”

When they got older, he concluded his visits with our boys by giving them a $20 bill and the instruction to “Tell your mama and daddy to buy you some ice cream.”

Seen here holding baby Carlton in 2008, with a smile of grandfatherly pride, Lanny almost always wore a mischievous grin.

I never will forget the time he recounted to me all of the mishaps he had with his pickup trucks. We were driving out to the farm one Saturday afternoon, and in the span of 12 or 13 miles he covered the untimely demise of five or six different trucks, including one that rolled into a pond in an abandoned kaolin mine. In each story he laughed and concluded his series of tales with “I used to do some crazy things.” Lanny was never afraid to make himself the butt of his own joke.

His exploits and sense of humor was well known at the chalk plant, and he was often called by the nickname “Jelly Roll.” Our friend, Devita, grew up hearing her dad tell hilarious stories involving Jelly Roll, and she was amazed the night she learned the famous — or infamous — Jelly Roll was none other than Carla’s daddy.

My brother Lee came along three years and seven months after me, and for another six years and nine months, it was just the two of us. We fought, sure, but we were also close because of the vast amount of time we spent together playing whiffle ball and football in the front yard; basketball in the driveway or church gym; and board, video and computer games in the bedroom we shared.

It took me a long time to appreciate or even understand Lee’s sense of humor, but I distinctly remember the night I recognized it.

It was June 2001. I was working for Mercer University at the time and had to stay overnight at a hotel on Peachtree Street across from the Fox Theater. And, no, it was not the Georgian Terrace. It was the less fancy one next door. I believe it was a Days Inn at the time. I had worked an event in the Fox’s Egyptian Ballroom honoring Judge William Augustus Bootle, a Mercer graduate and judge whose ruling led to the integration of Georgia schools. 

That night Lee just so happened to be coming through town, and so he crashed in my hotel room. We caught up on each other’s lives and families before somehow shifting to reminiscence about our time at Troy University.

Lee came to Troy in January of 1993 after spending a semester at Pensacola Christian College, and I had graduated from Troy in June of 1992. We did not overlap, but there were still plenty of people on campus who knew me, including my friend, Jim Quinn, who became Lee’s friend and guide. Lee referred to him as “Super Jim,” and I had no idea about their friendship or Lee’s exploits and misadventures at Troy.

We stayed up all night as he told one story after another of how he made the adjustment from a strict, Christian college to a largely free and unencumbered state school experience. He described his first roommate, with whom he had little in common, and how the guy could not understand Lee’s constant concern about “inspections,” “lights out,” and “demerits.”

I have never laughed harder than I did that night. Hearing about his encounters with the characters I knew from my years at Troy, his exploits in the marching band, the odd occurrences on the night shift at Subway – it was all perfect fodder for good stories. It was early in the morning before we both drifted off to sleep. If laughter is the best medicine, I overdosed that night. Lee’s storytelling and matter of fact, self-deprecating humor hit me in wave after wave with each new anecdote.

Lee Wallace wears a tan blazer over a green leprechaun t-shirt holding a microphone in his right hand and a raffle ticket stub in his left as a woman in a blue top and gray hair looks on.
Almost as funny as his deadpan humor is his crowd work at church events. He’s especially good with the… em… “Keenagers.”

Even now, I have to listen close when we talk to discern his sarcasm. I get out of practice, losing my ear for it when we go too long between conversations. But no matter how long it’s been, he never fails to make me laugh at some point.

Humor is subjective, and all of the members of my family — particularly my children — have given me plenty to laugh at and about in my life. I am grateful for all of it, particularly Dad, Lanny and Lee for sharing the gift of laughter.

Thoughts on Lanny

On Nov. 1, 2013, my father-in-law, Lanny Barron, was in an automobile accident on his way to his house in Sandersville from his family’s farm outside of town. He died on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Today’s essay is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at Lanny’s funeral. He and Cynthia would have been married 49 years on March 28. He would have turned 72 on April 2. To help remember him during this significant week, Carla asked that I post this eulogy. I hope you get a glimpse of what made him special.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.
Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny Carl Barron lived his life between the farm and town.

He spent his formative years on the family farm on the Sparta-Davisboro Road a few miles outside of town in what is known as the Downs Community. There he learned the ways of planting, harvesting, hunting, preparing food and generally occupying himself with practical pursuits ultimately meant to provide sustenance for his family.

His family moved into town as his father worked in law enforcement. He developed a love of sports and cars and other pursuits hot-blooded males of his generation appreciated. But he was never far from the farm and the woods.

In high school he met and fell in love with Cynthia Goodman. Though she went off to Georgia Southern and he to the U.S. Navy, his intense love only grew in their separation. Not one to put on much of a show or engage in what he referred to as “that kissy, kissy mess,” Lanny was smitten in a way that affected him to his core. And when Cynthia turned down his original proposal of marriage, the iron will and determination – some might call it stubbornness – that those who knew him well recognized as a central part of his character helped him woo her past the point of refusal.

They were married, and he spent his shifts, both days and nights, operating heavy equipment in the kaolin mines of Washington County, an honorable occupation many of you know well. As Cynthia went into the classroom to put her training and gifts of teaching and nurturing to use with the children of Tennille, Lanny had all he wanted out of life. Except for a child.

It was nearly a decade before Carla was born, and though he was, perhaps, better suited to teach a boy the importance of the land, honest character, the intricacies of the forward pass and the sacrifice bunt, Lanny was challenged to develop his more tender side as he learned to love and show affection to a daughter.

This wasn’t always easy for him, and for a time he struggled with his role as husband and father. But in her patience, love, and resolve, Cynthia helped him decide what was worth giving his life to and what was not. Lanny made up his mind that the woman who had been worth pursuing in his youth and the daughter they had so desperately wanted were worth spending time with, and once again through his will and determination he made the kind of life change that many are never able to accomplish.

Still, Lanny was not much of a churchman for many years. He could clearly recall his days as a young boy at the church at Downs, but his distaste for pretense and his ability to sniff out hypocrisy kept him from darkening the church door, though Cynthia and Carla were at church every time those doors were open.

In his 50s after suffering a heart attack, Lanny recommitted himself to the faith of his childhood. As he described it to me one day while driving from town out to the farm, he realized it was the church folk who visited him in the hospital and looked after Cynthia and Carla while he recovered. After that, Lanny was in church the first Sunday he was able, and he became a faithful member and servant. He was eventually named a deacon, a title to which he had not aspired in his earlier days. It was yet another example of him making up his mind and making a 180-degree turn, never to look back.

His lifestyle changes included a new commitment to physical fitness. He walked all over Washington County, mostly in the backwoods of his family’s land. By the time I met Lanny in 1996, he had shifted to riding a bike, and he could often be seen out on the Fall Line pedaling along with his little Pekingnese named Bossy, in the front basket.  He was a man who was nearly always in the company of a dog, and among those who grieve his passing now the most is his little buddy and constant companion, Jack.

Among the first occasions I had to spend an extended amount of time with Lanny was at Carla’s graduation from Mercer. His pride in the accomplishments of his daughter helped him overcome his distaste of pomp and circumstance. He put on a tie and made the drive over to Macon and along with about 10,000 other folks, he applauded his daughter achieving her college degree.

And when I went from being the boyfriend to the son-in-law, he put on a tuxedo to escort his beautiful Carla down the aisle.

For the past 16 years, the Lanny I have known has been a fan of the Golden Hawks, Bulldogs and Braves; quick with a joke (not many of which I would dare retell in this solemn gathering) and full of wisdom from his uncomplicated but principled upbringing. His mischievous smile was never brighter than when he picked at those he had fondness for, including Cynthia, his co-workers, church friends and, of course, his sister-in-law, Linda Goodman, who has always been able to give it back as good as she got it.

And at least a hand full of times I have been with him as he rode out to the farm to the Red House to find his nephew, Johnny, sitting on the back porch in the autumn, mid-morning sun. Better than any program on the Outdoor Channel, he loved to hear Johnny tell of the morning’s hunt. Lanny listened as Johnny with characteristic exaggeration and good humor described how the big one got away or humbly submit how his superior hunting skills led him to take a prized buck.

In those years Lanny and Cynthia together were wonderful caregivers to his mother, Ruth, who lived with them. He looked after his mother as dutifully and as conscientiously as I hope our boys will look after theirs. He was a model son, and an inspiration to Carla who has tried to be with him and her mama through every step of this journey.

I have seen firsthand his love for Cynthia in her recent years of illness. He was attentive to her every need and relished proving to her that he could cook, clean up and even do laundry.

In my experience with Lanny, he has been at his very best as a grandfather, or as my boys have known him, Poppy. Never too fond of hospital rooms, three times he made his way to be with us after the birth of our boys and every time, he held a new grandson, he would beam and pronounce them “handsome young men, just like their grandfather.”

He loved grilling for them and preparing their favorite foods. He absolutely loved seeing them devour a bowl of ice cream, even before their infant digestive tracks could handle it. He always asked them how they were doing in school and if they were chasing the little girls. He loved taking them out to the farm, letting them drive his camouflaged golf cart and feed and chase the goats.

He came to their performances at school and at church, and even adopted the new tradition of waiting out Santa’s arrival at our house in Lilburn. No visit with Poppy ever concluded without him reaching into his wallet and giving each of them a $20 bill. He pulled them close, hugged them, said “Love you, Buddy. Make your mama and daddy buy you some ice cream.”

I asked my boys what I should say today to let you know how much he meant to them. Carlton, in all the eloquence his five years could muster, said: “Poppy was really nice, and I loved his hamburgers and hotdogs.”

Harris, who three weeks ago sat down in his Poppy’s hospital room in Augusta and refused to leave until Poppy got better, said: “He taught me to drive a golf cart, and I could never beat him at checkers.”

Barron, his first-born grandson and the benefactor of his generous excesses of grandfatherly affection, said: “Poppy always wanted to hear me play my trumpet and my guitar, and I had fun last summer working with him on his old car.”

And if given the chance to stand here and offer words of your memories, you would no doubt mention many more traits that made Lanny Carl Barron the unique individual that he was. In the last three days I have heard stories from you that were familiar and part of the lore that was his life story. I have heard new stories that I had never known but were completely consistent with the man I have come to love and admire.

Let this not be the last days those stories escape your lips. Lanny lives on in each telling. Cynthia is comforted by the sound of his name and the knowledge that you miss him right along with her. Carla needs to be reminded often of the kind of person her daddy was, so she can know where she came from and what’s important in life. And these grandsons need to know their Poppy in fuller and richer ways than the perspective of their youth can afford them now.

If you have loved Lanny in life, I ask you to speak these stories with joy and laughter and with frequency. Lanny always enjoyed a laugh and a good story, grounded in timeless truths, even those tales that pointed out his own foibles. He will enjoy hearing you tell them from his new vantage point.

Perhaps no one has more stories than you, James. You are above all others, a man held in high esteem by Lanny. You have gone farther than the formal relationship of brother-in-law would obligate a man. You have been the sidekick in many of Lanny’s misadventures, always the voice of caution, always offering a word of reason, but all too often dismissed to Lanny’s detriment. Still, you went with him to the farm each morning to tend the goats. And you went with him to auctions and sales and wide-ranging quests for tractor parts or purchases of hay. Too many times you had to be the one to call 911 or worse, your sister, when things went badly. Lanny probably pushed you too far outside of your comfort zone too many times, but in his boldness and disregard for safety, he was comforted by your presence. There is no telling how many disasters you helped avert, how many inconveniences you prevented from becoming full-blown fiascoes. Lanny was fortunate to have you as a brother, and he knew it.

There are others of you here who were important to him whom I have not mentioned: Martha and Ann, Edna and Steve, Jason, Emily, Amy and all the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lanny’s older brother, John, but I know for a fact how much he looked up to him, and how important John’s family was to him. He treasured visits with Lois, Sherri, Johnny and Jonathan because they helped him feel connected to his roots, especially in the days after his daddy and mama had passed.

Lanny, today we lay your body to rest, knowing that you are not in this casket. Our faith leads us to anticipate a glorious reunion someday, and we are comforted by the idea that you sit with your mother and father, your brothers and your friends who have gone before you.

We have made a little bit of a fuss over you. I hope it’s OK and you don’t mind. You’ll have to forgive us, because you are worth it.

Somewhere between the farm and town, we lost you. May we never forget all that you have taught us from traveling that road back and forth. We are all better for knowing you.

A son-in-law’s grief

At approximately 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1, my mother-in-law called me on my mobile phone as I was driving out of the parking garage at work in Midtown Atlanta.

“Lanny has been in accident,” were the words that began a journey for our family that culminated in another phone call, at about 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

“He’s gone, he’s gone, Daddy’s gone,” my wife heartbreakingly wept into the phone.

When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it's hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.
When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it’s hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.

During the last two months, our lives have been emotionally and somewhat physically upended. My mother-in-law lived at the hospital in Augusta for more than three weeks while Daddy was treated in the shock and trauma unit. Carla spent countless hours commuting back and forth to Augusta to be by her mama’s and daddy’s side. Hundreds of people supported us with childcare, meals and financial gifts to defray the cost of travel and feeding our family while Carla was out of work.

Our church family at Parkway proved that care and love was not lip service. My parents left their busy lives and commitments to come and be with us, getting the boys on and off the bus and allowing me to do my job. Our across-the-street neighbors took our boys on so many occasions I have lost count, including on Thanksgiving Day just moments after our boys learned that their grandfather had died.

This is a lot to go through, to understand, to process, to grieve. And like an actor in a supporting role, I have tried to play my part, dutifully, with strength and grace, out of the limelight but lifting up those around me.

But in the process, I fear that I have tamped down my own feelings of loss and regret.

As the son-in-law, I have no blood-relation claim to the grief that my wife carries and is so amazingly overcoming. Even my sons have certain rights, by my way of thinking, which entitle them to grieve this loss in an open way, as best as children can, according to their emotional maturity.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I know this is not about me. I’ve repeated that mantra so many times in the quiet moments at home around the supper table with my boys as their mother was away. I’ve whispered it to myself in hospital waiting rooms. I’ve recited it as I drove to the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, tears obscuring my vision, knowing I was about to stand with two people I love dearly and look on the face of my father-in-law who would no longer be present in that body.

I know this isn’t about me. I really do.

But how in God’s name am I supposed to feel? Am I allowed any grief? How can I ease the pain of loss that is just beneath the surface, taking all my energy to control as I navigate through my days trying to focus on working and receiving the generosity and care of others and giving care and strength to my family while celebrating holidays?

How do I get over this? Do I get over this? Is trying to move forward a dishonor to Daddy’s memory? Is feeling or desiring joy a betrayal? Is gloom and sorrow the only emotion to feel? Why do I think that showing sadness just makes me appear weak, pathetic and a pretender, someone who simply wants attention or to participate in a loss that isn’t really his?

No one has made me feel this way. It’s all in my head. But until now it has remained in my head.

Regular readers of New South Essays will know that I haven’t published since the day of the accident. Even though I had a topic in the queue and a draft ready to post, this medium seemed so distant in my priorities that I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there. I have been in a state of survival numbness that has blocked my ability to express anything, much less an essay.

I was blessed with the opportunity to offer a personal eulogy at the graveside service. It took all of my resources to craft an appropriate word, and writing it did offer a beginning of my own healing. Delivering it to a hurting company of family and friends on that gray December day left me utterly spent as I struggled to say words that were so connected to my heart that I struggled to breathe and give voice to them. I haven’t written anything since.

Today, I am making you part of my journey of grief. If I have resolved to do anything differently this new year, it is to loosen the reins on my emotions and let some of this out. I can’t keep pretending I’m OK. I’m really not.

Lanny Carl Barron was not a perfect man, but he was “Daddy” to me. I have a father. I am blessed to have a dad whom I deeply love and who is still here for me to guide me and support me. I need that wisdom and care now more than ever. But that does not stop me from missing Daddy.

Too often I refrain from saying out loud just how much because I don’t want to upset my wife, Mama or the boys. But here, now, I am telling you that the loss of my father-in-law is affecting me in a profound way, tapping into unresolved grief from losing my grandparents and maybe every other type of loss I’ve ever experienced back to the days when my first boyhood dog had to be put to sleep.

I promise not to let New South Essays become a morose stream of my darkest thoughts. As the clouds part, I will be able to give energy to other topics, but today, I have to begin my return to feeling by sharing this.

Thank you for reading. And if this somehow speaks to you in your own journey of grief, then God bless  you. I know that I am not alone, and that does make a difference.

This has always been an interactive forum, and you are invited to leave your thoughts in a comment below. Thank you for being loyal readers, patient with my two-and-a-half month sabbatical. Perhaps you have unexpressed feelings of loss and that putting those feelings in a comment here will help. I invite you to share.