There is a phrase that I find so hysterically funny that merely uttering it in my presence will cause me to go into convulsions of helpless laughter; the breath leaves my lungs, my face spasms, something seismic rolls through me and I can’t stop. It can go on and on — waves of laughter — for upward of fifteen minutes. Look at me funny at any point during an episode and it can start all over.

For years, this was my private talisman against depression, for which I have been treated on and off all my adult life. I have heard of classes where participants gather round and force themselves to laugh in order to harvest the benefits attributed to laughter. While the image itself is pretty funny, the concept doesn’t work for me. I need a prop. Mine is “mashed potatoes and twigs”. Yes, there’s a story behind it. No, it’s not important nor would knowing it make it work for you. It’s mine. You’ll have to get your own.

Ours is a competitive family. Any pretext will do, with any commodity as the spur – the computer, the TV, the couch, attention, praise, whatever – but the ultimate competition is to defeat mom at something. My kids have tried unsuccessfully for years to beat me at “Poor Pussy”* This is a game in which each participant in turn tries to make “It” laugh or at least crack a smile by…meowing. Creatively. You get three meows after each of which, “It” — in order to demonstrate her unbroken composure — must solemnly pat the “kitty” on the head and say with a straight face, “poor pussy”. So exceptionally stoic am I, that my mouth has never once so much as twitched and it drives the kids absolutely spare.

Also in vain, they have tried to find my ticklish spots. The truth is, I’m ticklish all over but I take a peculiar, petty pride in thwarting them so through sheer competitive will, I remain blasé.You could say I was asking for it. It was inevitable that my Achilles heel would one day be exposed. When it happened, the kids looked on in delighted awe as Ima went completely to pieces, and they filed away this precious piece of knowledge.

The relationship between parents and kids is an inherently unequal one. Parents are bigger, of course, but we also hold the ultimate authority over bedtime, allowance, chores, play dates, media habits, transportation… pretty much everything. Kids wield a kind of soft power, chiefly in the form of tantrums and selective hearing, but it does little to alleviate their general sense of powerlessness. Let a kid get his hands on a weapon of this magnitude though, and it’s a game-changer. Over the next few months, the kids deployed it without mercy, again and again. I had kids sneaking up behind me, popping out of doorways, looming over me in the mornings, creeping over my shoulder in the car, shouting that magic phrase. Such power!

Toward the end (you saw this coming, right?), the tremors grew milder, the laughs less loud until one day… nothing. Thud. The pool had been fished out. If I was despondent, my kids were horrified. They reacted as though they had been responsible for the death of a small helpless animal. I reassured them that these things have a shelf life, they don’t live forever (and refrained from pointing out that they may have hastened its death). For a time, they’d take the occasional little stab at resuscitating it, as though the problem may simply have been one of delivery. But no luck. We sort of buried it in the backyard and moved on.

This was all at least a couple of years ago and while I’ll never be characterized as an optimist, I’m at least hopeful about life; as I wrote this and got to remembering my little phrase and the day it came into my life, I got tears in my eyes. From laughing.

*props to Mary Voors for introducing me to this game nearly 30 years ago.