04/01/2013 10:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Master of April Fools'

My mother, Betty Lou, loved April Fools' jokes. This may not seem like a big deal, except that she didn't really have a sense of humor. I don't mean that she wasn't funny or want to like jokes. Just that she didn't have a "sense" of them. Like some people don't have a sense of taste or a sense of smell. She just didn't seem to get humor. I can only remember her telling two jokes, though they were really more off-handed quips. Watching a comedy with her was an experience, regularly interrupted with, "What did he say?" and "Why is that funny?" and "What are they laughing about?" She liked comedy. She liked humor. She just didn't particularly get it.

But she loved April Fools' Day. Just absolutely freaking loved it. Lived for it. She loved getting people, mostly her family, but even friends weren't immune. Often elaborate jokes that she set up. And the thing is, we all knew it was coming. How could we not? She did it every year. But she was so good at it that she still got you. And my poor dad got the brunt of it, because in later years, when we not only were expecting it, but were heavily on our guard, my mom decided that she'd better get my dad before he had a chance to realize it was April Fools' Day. So, by the time they hit their late 70s, she'd pummel the guy with an April Fools' Day joke usually before he'd even gotten out of bed. But she was prepared that early. She had her April Fools' Day joke ready to go, first thing in the morning. Hey, the early bird catches the poor sap, that sort of thing.

It was an art form to her. There were rules to an April Fools' joke, for her. It couldn't be hurtful, that rule was at its core. But the main rule was -- "An April Fools' joke must be something that's bad, so that when the person discovers it's just a joke, they will be relieved and happy and laugh." If you do it the other way -- set up something great, and then pull the rug out -- nope, that's no good. Because then the person will be disappointed that something they were looking forward to didn't happen.

Besides the fact that she had only told two quips in her life and didn't have a "sense" of humor, what made my mother's love of April Fools jokes so profoundly unlikely was that she was the most unassuming person to pull pranks. She was a tiny, Midwestern woman. About 5'2" and maybe 90 pounds. Soft-spoken and sweet as the day is long. (A cousin once told me that my mother was one of the two nicest people she ever knew. The other was my grandmother -- who was my mother's mother, so clearly she came from good "nice" stock. And to be clear, this grandmother -- Grandma Rose -- was on the other side of the family from my cousin, and not a relative. Just a pure, nice person. So, my mother learned well.) Also, she hated anything risqué. It didn't have to be crude, just something mild would do. "Oh, why did he have to say that?" was a typical question when watching a movie, or hearing a comedian say something as simple as "damn."


On top of all that, she was frail -- seriously frail. She had polio, a stroke, macular degeneration, and then the polio returned later in her life as "post-polio." And she never complained. Ever. It was just a part of life, and you went on.

This then was the woman who lived for April Fools' Day. If you saw her on the street, you would never expect it of her. And yet she always got you. Even when you did expect it.

Okay, so she played April Fools' jokes. People do that, they play April Fools' jokes. They say something, get you, and shout "April Fools!" Nope, that's not what I'm talking about. Like I said, to my mother April Fools' Day was an art form.

Here's what I mean.

A few weeks back, I was trading emails with my brother's first wife, Karen Lupa, who is a nurse. Somehow, the subject of all this came up, and she told me a story I'd never heard before. It was from over 30 years ago, mind you, but it had stuck with her all these years. Now, remember -- you know this is an April Fools' joke. Imagine not knowing what's coming and living it.

Here's what Karen wrote --

"I wanted to add my favorite Betty Lou April Fool's joke. (As she pointed out, it needs to be something TERRIBLE but believable so that the "April Fool" comes as a great relief.)

"When John and I were starting out in life and living in Milwaukee, she wanted us to get to know another couple who were physicians (and also, like John, children of physicians.) You might remember that we were anti-upper class culture at the time, that sort of counter-culture thing, but we dutifully met with this couple at one of the city's fancier restaurant and chatted politely, ending the evening with the clear knowledge on all our parts that we would not be socializing regularly with them (or ever!).

"About a month later, Betty Lou called me to say that a 'formal' party was being organized at a very nice club for up-and-coming physicians and their wives. She started to help me decide what we could wear (I don't mean pull out of our closet, since of course we had no evening clothes, that just wasn't us, but rather what we had to BUY to wear). And beyond buying clothes, she helped me, too, figure out what to talk about and who to be sure to talk to, and also how really important this would be for all the parents, as they launched their respective kids into the world of medicine. As you can imagine, this was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. The conversation went on for a good 10 minutes - before those most delicious words....April fool!"

That, ladies and gents, is the work of a master.

And you must understand: this wasn't the exception. This is what my mother did on April Fools' Day. To everyone in the family. And to good friends who got caught in the crosshairs. Everyone. Every year. For decade after decade. And you knew it was coming. And she got you every time. Because she was a master. Maybe they all weren't this elaborate. But often they were. And usually there was a lengthy set-up of some sort. Only rarely, and only later in her life when people were really on their guard did she occasionally toss in something quick, down and dirty.

But most of the time, I got to witness the Shakespeare of April Fools' Day at work. Watching any master craftsman at work is a rare joy to behold. And only the few are lucky enough to be witnesses. I was one of the lucky ones once a year, every year, on April 1.


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about other matters from politics, entertainment, technology, humor, sports, and a few things in between, visit Elisberg Industries.