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The Way I See It: Mischief at the Jewish General

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I penned this commentary on the 39th anniversary of the day Linda and I were married. It was sunny and warm that day in 1982 as our family and friends smiled and witnessed our unconventional vows in front of the barn at the Hulbert Outdoor Center on the northern tip of Lake Morey in Fairlee. 

Linda and I are much the same as we were. Linda has the same kind heart, devoid of any pretense, and she hums some of the same songs as she puts dishes from the drying rack into the cupboard. She finds joy in a cup of herbal tea, a walk up the road. Happily for me, Linda still thinks I’m funny. 

I’m an inveterate punster, known for telling large puns and puny puns. People mostly groan at my puns. Linda laughs, especially at the bad ones. Linda has retained her sense of humor and joy.

The punning and other shenanigans came from my father.

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In a previous piece in The Bridge, I wrote about my father’s mischievous sense of humor, reciting this story about his internment from 1940 to 1942 in a prison camp in New Brunswick: “One day [he wrote] I did not feel like working and stayed behind in the deserted camp. I was caught by the Sergeant Major, who demanded to know my number. I said ‘three times eleven squared,’ which was correct, but caused him to scratch his head and to let me go.”

Reading this, my skeptical son said the story must be apocryphal. Maybe so. My father included the story in his short memoir of the first third of his life. At the time he wrote the memoir, in his neat, cursive longhand, either he remembered the story or he made it up. Mischief either way. 

One year after being freed from the prison camp, he was a young undergraduate at McGill University. He told another story: “Although I did not refrain from dating girls occasionally, I did not quite know how to behave, having been deprived of feminine companionship for several years. On certain social occasions, the girls expected to dance, something I was unable to do. Instead I would ask one of my male friends to take over. After a couple of years, this situation became intolerable and I asked my friend Bill Fingland to teach me how to waltz. In return, I agreed to write a philosophy essay for him. After a few beers, I fluently dictated an essay on Descartes, which earned higher marks than any I had ever received in my own name.” 

More mischief, and maybe also apocryphal.

My father was again interned in the spring of 2014, when he was 91 years old, at the conclusion of his 64-year-long professorship at McGill, the longest of any math professor in the university’s history.

This time, of course, he was not held as an “enemy alien” in a prison camp. He was confined to the internal medicine ward at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. My brother and I wrote to some of his friends to let them know. One friend replied that she hoped he was “not in pain and able to meet each day with his own particular brand of intensity and humor.”

His mood varied. “How are you feeling today?” was the typical chipper question as each staff person entered the hospital room. He sometimes answered, “Not so well. I would like to die.” One of the doctors, Dr. Raffoul, replied with a sardonic grin, “I’m sorry to tell you, Mr. Lambek, but you’re not sick enough to die. You’re not dying!” Dr. Raffoul yelled, probably because Mr. Lambek was hard of hearing.

Some days later, our father told my brother Michael to bring him a bucket. “What,” Michael asked, “you’re going to be sick? Why do you need a bucket?” Our father answered: “To kick it.”

We groaned. 

“Have you been telling puns to the staff here?” I asked him, worried. 

“Yes, I told 10 puns just this week,” my father confessed. 

“And have any of these puns actually helped you get better?” I asked. 

“No,” he replied, “no pun in 10 did.”

Okay, this last part is me being silly (and not original). But the bucket bit? He really said that. 

It wasn’t dying he was afraid of; it was losing his mind. When I arrived at his hospital room one morning, he was holding a pair of scissors in his hand — who knows how he had got them — and was threatening to cut the IV tube which he had been too weak to pull out. He wanted to escape. This time he was not being funny or mischievous. It was all so confusing, for both of us. That was the tragedy.

A couple of weeks later he was indeed dying, and he was calm, a peaceful atheist even in the foxhole.