“You know my favorite. It’s your favorite too,” my Bubbe said to me with the same rascally grin she had when she first told me our favorite joke. Though, it was now missing a few teeth, from when she said “fuck it” with her dentures, around when she moved in with parents for hospice care. Still, teeth-be-damned, she couldn’t withhold that smirk. See: it’s a dirty joke; it’s a dark joke; it’s a joke that over time has drifted onto the wrong side of political correctness; it’s the greatest joke ever.
She first heard “the one about the dead nun” on one of the regional, elderly bus tours she took before the cancer. Recalling the joke’s origin this past summer, she explained that she always sat in the back – the “X-Rated section” – so she and her friends could tell stories and jokes and generally act like sailors on leave (if sailors were old Jewish ladies). “It was too good,” she told me. Adding, “It had me rolling.” Still she couldn’t remember what play they were going to see. “I couldn’t pay attention. I was only thinking about the joke.” This made sense to me. It would to you too, if you’d heard it.
Over ten years have passed since I first heard the joke, but I can still remember her voice. It started in a whisper, a thing Bubbe always had trouble with. There were kids around, so her normal Flatbush Avenue-boom wouldn’t do. Kids weren’t allowed to hear this joke, but I was. I was old enough. I was old enough to hear the greatest joke ever.
We were waiting for our food at a local Italian restaurant and it was unnaturally sunny. The restaurant was engulfed in a clean white light — appropriate considering the joke is set in heaven. To this day, when I say the punchline, I squint, conditioned from my first time hearing it.
When she finished the joke, she laughed. I laughed too, but her’s – always undeniable and a bit performative – swallowed it up like a science fictional blob rolling down a metropolitan hill, consuming all in its path. The restaurant and the world went silent to give the vibrations of our laugh the room it needed.
* * *
My last weekend with her, she sat silently on a cushioned chair two feet to the right of me while I watched TV. She dozed in and out – not tired, but exhausted. Still, when the phone rang for her, she’d answer with her signature shout, “HellOOOOOOOOOO.” I listened in, not for facts or information, but just the sound – the timber, rhythm, tonal fluxuations – of a person who loved to talk. Chipper, but saddled with a mind fighting a losing battle, facts got blurry. Time condensed. One story she told me involved my uncle, who is 20 years my senior, and me together as kids. It made sense. In her way, Bubbe was an existentialist. She lived in moments. She lived in conversations. She lived in jokes.
She was 79, but that’s only in years. In jokes told or ceramic giraffes collected or completely insane rings worn or peak hair height or the instant, effusive, unconditional loving of a shy grandchild: Bubbe destroyed Methuselah’s record for oldest Jew.
Traveling by myself a couple months ago, I was in a very foreign airport, awaiting boarding, when I received a text from my mom: “Bubbe passed away at 5:17 PM. No pain, very comfortable, fast, just the way she wanted. She adored you!” Tears came so instantly, so forcefully, they felt like a sneeze. Surrounded by people, but incapable of communicating, I needed to be alone, so I fled to the nearby “Prayer Room.” Waiting for a Muslim man to finish bowing towards Mecca, I took out the gaudy, two-knuckle-wide ring she gave me, which all trip I’d been keeping in my shirt pocket (over my heart) to keep me company. Bubbe wasn’t a spiritual person, so I looked for another way to honor the room’s name. Staring at the ring’s white and silver beads, I thought for a second, squinted at the joke’s punchline and laughed like I always did. The jokes, the rings, the memories were the same as they were a day, a month, a year ago; they didn’t disappear when the light was turned off.
My dad once said he never knew a boy who dreamed of growing up to be his grandmother. I’m trying. I can’t imagine ever being the life of the party, let alone throwing one, as she did, with belly dancers, sex toys, and porn (she broke fundraising records). But I can tell a joke.
And I’ll tell you this one because you’ve made it this far and I hope you continue to pass it on. But I do have conditions if you’re going to tell it: 1. You have to be prepared to love this joke as much as she did. 2. Tell it with your voice loud and eyes squinting (think: Gilbert Gottfried). 3. Last but not least, you better fucking sell it.
The joke: SO, a nun passes away and finds herself up in the clouds. There, she is greeted by an angel – halo, wings, the whole nine. “Welcome to heaven. We are so happy to have you here. Follow me.” So she does. A few minutes pass and the nun hears in the distance the worst screams she’s ever heard. Just terrible, awful screams of pain. “What is that?” the nun asks. “Oh, they are just drilling the holes for the wings,” the angel smiles. That seemed reasonable enough, so they keep on walking. Another few minutes pass and then the nun hears even louder screams than before. Just horrible, blood-curdling screams. “What is that?” the nun asks. “Oh, they are just drilling the holes for the halo,” the angel responds calmly. The nun nods and continues to follow the angel.
After a few more minutes, the two arrive at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter greets the nun, “You lived such a good and wonderful life. Let me welcome you to heaven.” The nun thinks and responds, “I think I’m going to pass.” “What?” Saint Peter says shocked. “You know the alternative: Hell. You’ll be raped. You’ll be sodomized.”
The nun pauses for a second. “At least I have the holes for that.”
Photo by Ben Eekhof.
Jesse David Fox is a Senior Editor at Vulture.com.