I handed my debit card to the owner of a barbecue restaurant. He saw my name on the card.

"Is your mother's name Elizabeth?" he asked.

When I nodded, he burst out laughing. And then proceeded to confess to a prank, motivated by my mother, that he'd pulled on my family 30 years ago.

Cartoon by David Fitzsimmons - Arizona Star (click to purchase)

Cartoon by David Fitzsimmons - Arizona Star (click to purchase)

My mother, you see, is a little bit "out there." People would refer to her as "eccentric" if she were as wealthy financially as she is wealthy otherwise.

Her greatest wealth is her art of laughter.

She knew laughter's benefits long before scientific studies confirmed them. When she wasn't laughing herself, she was teaching us how.

Most nights after dinner, we sat around the table, relating stories about we'd done and laughing aloud.

While many parents in our neighborhood went out on Saturday nights, my mother preferred to stay home.

We'd make banana splits and watch the Carol Burnett show, and as Tim Conway's old-man routine made me laugh so hard that I'd fall off the couch, she'd watch me, delighted that I was learning her art so well.

She collected friends even more eccentric than she. One lady, Marty, had five children -- my mother had six. Both had been housewives their entire adult lives -- both wanted to try their hand at writing.

My mother soon published a few magazine articles -- Erma Bombeck-style housewife humor. She and Marty wrote a play, "Betty's Attic," that a local theater company performed.

They sold jokes to Phyllis Diller. They were thrilled to see her do their jokes at a live show -- delighted by the laughter their jokes provoked.

The writing never produced much money, though, so my mother concocted another plan to generate extra cash. Did she get a part-time job, like normal moms in our neighborhood?

No, she dressed up like Miss Piggy, Big Bird, Raggedy Ann or Clown Clara and staged children's parties for parents desperate to pay her. It was easy for her to bring instant order to a room of 40 kids or more.

She was soon staging three parties every Saturday -- all of them as Clown Clara, to avoid costume changes.

As fate would have it, though -- and I'm not making this up -- a thief dressed as a clown had been robbing area banks.

But she still was surprised when a cop roared into a driveway where she had just pulled in for one of her gigs, jumped out and began barking at her.

It took some time to clear up the confusion -- at one point, the cop thought my mother was in cahoots with the guy who'd hired her to stage his kid's party. But when everybody finally figured out what was going on, she had but one response: a giant burst of laughter.

Which brings us back to the barbecue restaurant.

The fellow who owned the joint had lived in a neighborhood near ours during my mother's Clown Clara period. A teen then, he was friends with my sister Mary.

He and his buddies, aware that my mother dressed as a clown -- everyone in our neighborhood knew about Clown Clara -- could not fend off the temptation to prank-call our home.

Late at night, after sneaking beers in the woods, he'd call our house, disguising his voice as Mickey Mouse.

"Is Clown Clara there?" he'd say, his friends laughing aloud in the background.

It happened 30 years ago -- and he's still laughing about it.

That's my mother: spreading the art of laughter wherever she goes.


©2010 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or email [email protected]. Visit Tom on the web at www.TomPurcell.com or e-mail him at [email protected].