Twenty-nine years ago I went in search of my mother’s ghost. Three years after she died I packed up everything I owned and moved from Alaska to Beverly Hills to find the friends she had left there 20 years earlier. I wanted to find out why she gave up her career in Hollywood to become a missionary for the Baha’i Faith. I also wanted to know what she was like before she met my father and had me. I wanted to know if she had been happier. There was no family left on my mother’s side so her old friends in LA were my only link to her.
This was before cell phones and the internet so it took months of driving around checking phone books, calling old numbers in a faded address book, and trying to remember the names of the old friends she would talk about when I was growing up. When I was a kid and the Rockford Files would come on she’d point to the screen and say, “Oh, that’s Leo. We used to lay on the beach together and wait for our agents to call.” Sometimes I’d be watching the Love Boat or Charlie’s Angels and she’d say, “That’s David, we used to love to go dancing together.”
As desperately as I wanted to find someone who knew my mom I couldn’t just walk the streets of Los Angeles asking strangers if they knew the guy who was in that one episode of Barney Miller. After months of couch surfing and living in my car I finally found her best friend from those days, Mrs. Quigley. Mrs. Quigley was the person who introduced her to the Baha’i Faith and inspired her to move to Alaska to become a missionary. When I got her on the phone I told her who I was and that I’d like to meet her to find out more about my mom. She gave me her address and I drove right over.
A short Latino woman opened the door and I thought I had the wrong house. I knew Mrs. Quigley wasn’t Latino. That’s when I realized I was talking to her maid. I had never seen a maid before. I had never seen any kind of servant. But Mrs. Quigley lived in Beverly Hills and her husband produced Hollywood Squares so they had servants.
Mrs. Quigley made her entrance from the top of a curved stairway and brought me into the dining room to talk. The house was full of expensive art and antiques. And Emmy Awards. It was full of those too.
We sat down at the dinner table and I began asking her questions about my mom. What was she like? Was she happy with her career? Did she get along with her parents? Did she ever talk about having kids? She was so angry and miserable in Alaska. Was she always like that? She grew up Jewish in The Bronx and made her living as an actress in LA. Why did she become a Baha’i and move to the north pole?
You know what Mrs. Quigley told me about my mother? Nothing. Not one thing. She barely remembered her. It was devastating. All this for nothing. At one point she asked me if I had plans to go into show business. I said I hadn’t decided yet. She leaned over closely and whispered, “It’s very hard this business. Almost impossible to succeed in. Give it five years. If you haven’t made it by then you should move on.” She leaned back, satisfied she had given me something far more valuable than anything I could ever find out about my mom.
As I looked up I could see the Emmy Awards shining under the lights behind her. The servants came and took away our plates. The chef came out and asked if we wanted creme brulee or tiramisu for dessert. I wondered if this was the speech she had given my mom. Show business had worked out for Mrs. Quigley so she didn’t have to go to Alaska and fly into fishing villages to teach Aleuts about the Baha’i Faith.
I left LA with more questions than I arrived with and decided I would just make up what I wanted about who I was and where I came from. I wasn’t mad at Mrs. Quigley. She seemed genuine and I never felt anything but disappointment that my mother thought they were closer friends than the actually were.
That year in LA made a big impression on me. It drove home how truly alone I was. I had no relatives than I knew of and a father who cared for me but I had not yet forgiven for leaving years earlier. So I went back to Alaska, got a job, got a degree, and slowly created a life that included vague second-hand memories of my mother growing up in New York and occasionally watching her on TV in episodes of Dennis the Menace and Bewitched.
Until last Friday when my cousin Bernie found me on Facebook. Who is Cousin Bernie? Who knows? You know him as well as I do. It turns out my mother’s sister Mona is still alive at 89 and her two sons, Eric and Bernie, have found me online.
Bernie and I have been writing back and forth every day and I have already found the answer to the question I’ve thought about since I was a kid. Why was my mother so angry?
The answer is, as Bernie says, “It’s in our genes!” Apparently my grandfather, while capable of great acts of love, also had a temper and this lovely bit of DNA was passed down to my mom. It skipped Aunt Mona, me and thankfully my son but the gene for volcanic temper is what’s responsible for how I grew up. That’s why nothing I did ever made it better. It’s taken all these years but I finally believe that her anger had nothing to do with me. It had nothing to do with my dad or Mrs. Quigley or Alaska or the Baha’is or anything else. It was just how she was built. Bernie doesn’t know it but those words changed everything. I get to move on now.
And now you know why I don’t tell my own stories at this show. We’d be there till midnight, right? This show is about you guys and I can’t wait to hear your own stories about the things that made you who you are today.
The rules for stories are below but you know the kind we’re looking for: true stories that happened to you that still mean something to you days, months or years later.
Remember to practice out loud on friends or pets and keep it under 8 minutes.
I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, April 23, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.
Attendance has been fantastic lately but the cafe is getting a little worried about fire codes and safety and such. I’ll probably have to limit attendance to around 110. Of course there’s no way for me to actually do that so just be mindful when the RSVP list gets close to 100. I hurts to tell anyone to wait for the next show to roll around but until I can convince Roy Street to take out the wall they share with the FedEx next door we gotta make sure we don’t upset the fire marshal.