My father was a prodigious sneezer. As children, my siblings and I would delight in watching his frantic scramble for the handkerchief he invariably carried in his back pocket, seeing his face scrunch up in anticipation of the looming explosion, hearing the violent expulsion of air from his lungs.
Getting at the handkerchief was often problematic, especially when he was seated. Without warning, he’d burst from his chair, sometimes spilling to the floor any of us children unlucky enough to have been sitting on his lap. Pawing frantically at his pocket, turning away from anyone present, he’d pull the white cloth out, shake it quickly, and plant it firmly across his mouth. Once in a while he was late getting it in place, which would elicit frustrated mutterings between sneezes.
We thought this routine was especially funny when carried out at church, in the middle of another long sermon. Or while he was on the phone.
During his fumblings for the handkerchief, he’d squeeze his eyes tightly shut, wrinkle his slightly bent nose, and tilt his head backwards, looking for all the world as if he was beseeching the heavens to spare him. His Adam’s apple, never particularly noticeable at other times, would bob up and down with his every stifled gasp.
And the noise! Depending on the severity of the sneezes, or how quickly they came upon him, the noise could be loud trumpeting, loud wheezing, even loud hissing. Always loud. We were never disappointed in the range of noises he could muster.
A-roo-pha-a-! A-roo-pha-a! we might hear. Or A-ree-cha-a-a! A-ree-cha-a-a! Sometimes A-chintz-ish! A-chintz-ish! There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take. But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop. I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.
My mother, always proper, would roll her eyes, frown, and sometimes admonish him for his attention-seeking ways. That’s how she regarded them. Genteel people, she maintained, would sneeze into their handkerchiefs so quietly as not to disturb those around them. And they would never draw attention to themselves in so garish or boorish a manner.
At her words, my father would nod agreement and point a finger randomly at her as he completed each cycle of sneezes. But he never changed. Not once as I grew up did I hear a gentle sneeze from him. No discreet Ker-choo! No soft A-choo!
He’s gone now, of course, and I’m older by far than he was when I first began to marvel at his sneezes. Over the years, I’ve become quite aware of the power of genetic coding as I’ve lived with my own daughters—and my wife—bemusedly berating me for my own sneezing habits. I believe, at least in this one small way, I am my father reincarnate.
Allergy season is a disaster for me, and every season seems to boast one or more allergens that trigger my sneeze reflex. Remembering my father’s sneezing, I’ve striven mightily to conform to my mother’s admonitions to him.
But honestly, have you ever tried to suppress a sneeze? Successfully? If you can, you’re among the blessed of the world. I marvel when I see someone turn their face into their sleeve and emit a barely audible Mmm-ffft! They behave as if that simple act is nothing.
When I try, my eyes begin to water, my breath comes in short gasps, and I can’t continue talking, so preoccupied am I with the tickle in my nostrils that just won’t go away. And it’s always to no avail, anyway. I’ve even tried clamping my hand over my mouth, only to have the eruption through my nose. That’s not pleasant, handkerchief or not!
To my chagrin, I’ve discovered that my grandchildren may have inherited the sneezing curse. I watched one of the girls recently, doing as she’s been taught, sneezing into the crook of her elbow rather than into her hand. I thought this a much healthier way of proceeding until I saw her wipe the residue off her sleeve with…you guessed it, her hand!
And my grandson—what a sneezer he was as an infant. I even wrote a poem for him, so taken was I with his prowess. It was entitled Ebenezer Sneezer, and he laughs at it still.
But alas, it’s still I who commands the attention of all around me when I have to sneeze. Although I remember my father fondly for so many reasons—his sense of humour, his kindness, his pride in his ever-growing family— his sneezing proclivities bedevil me to this day.
You may laugh at my concern, thinking it trivial, but it’s the only thing in my life where I can truly say, “It’s nothing to sneeze at!”