It took me over 40 years to find out why my mom became a missionary. She was a Baha’i, not Christian, and Baha’i’s call what she did “pioneering.” In 1964, she left Hollywood and an acting career, and moved to Alaska to bring the Baha’i Faith to whoever would listen. I came along later and accompanied her by plane, boat, train and car on her religious mission throughout the state.
Even as a kid, I felt there was something a little nutty about this. Why were we flying all over bothering people? It felt worse than going door to door in the neighborhood selling my Cub Scout raffle tickets. The raffle tickets only cost a dollar and there were no afterlife implications if you didn’t have the winning number.
My mother, though, was selling religion. The stakes were higher both spiritually and emotionally. My mother was driven to bring people to her faith no matter how much it embarrassed her family. We knocked on doors, hosted fireside chats, stood behind card tables filled with pamphlets at conventions, we did it all. But during that time I never had the courage to ask her why. What could possibly drive a person to give up everything she worked for and move to a place like Alaska? It would have been easier for me to understand if she’d gone up to work saloons during a gold rush than to be a missionary.
Unfortunately, my mom died when I was 17 and I never found out what caused her to move to the frozen north. I have DVDs of her in sitcoms from that time. She seemed successful. I still have her portfolio she used to send out to agents. She was striking. I remember going with her one day to a big house in Beverly Hills to see an old friend who was a regular on Charlie’s Angels and wondering, “Why did you leave all this?”
My mother’s love of the Baha’i Faith was a mystery to me until last year when an old family friend sent me a book on Baha’i’s in Alaska that included a short chapter on my mother. Right there on page 148 the mystery was finally solved. A quick email to my cousin Bernie added another important layer.
My mom grew up Jewish in Brooklyn and every year during Passover Seder her father would tell her to run to the door to let in the prophet Elijah. (Technically, this would happen while the rest of the family recited verses where they asked God to, according to chabad.org, “visit His wrath upon their persecutors and oppressors.” I kinda like that part.) Every year, according to the story my mother told the author of this book, Elijah had someplace better to go and my mother would be very disappointed.
I can totally see my mom at eight years old being very disappointed in Elijah. Once, when we were living in Anchorage, she threw a pot roast out the window because someone didn’t show up for dinner. It didn’t matter to my mom if you were a prophet or a dinner guest. If you said you were going to show up you better show up.
Then, one night in 1964, a friend of hers was introduced to the Baha’i Faith. Later that night, around midnight, that friend knocked on my mother’s door in Beverly Hills and told her about his conversion. My mother said it felt like Elijah had finally come to her door. After 25 years of Elijah-less Seders my mom had finally found God. Immediately after I read that I wrote my cousin Bernie and asked if he’d heard that story. He said no but when I asked him why he thought his aunt would just run off to Alaska he said, “Well, she was always getting a wild hair about something.”
So there it was. For 17 years, we flew all over Alaska in bush planes because Elijah, in the form of Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Baha’i Faith, came to my mother’s door. And also because she was prone to wild hairs.
Finding this out was so comforting me to that I resolved to go back into my own life and figure out why I love the people and things that I do. It’s been a humbling, fascinating experience. I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with standup comedy (on a camping trip with my Boy Scout troop). I can tell you why I fell in love with certain women (this story is too long already for all that.) I can tell you why I fell in love with reading and writing (I was desperately looking for a way out of the life I was in as a kid). And I can tell you why I love unexpectedly washing dishes at people’s houses (t reminds me of my dad but don’t get excited, I don’t do it for everyone). I can even tell you why it’s still comforting to write stories sitting on the floor in the bathroom with the lights off and the shower on (it was the only room in the house with a lock on the door where I could get away from people screaming at each other. The sound of the shower would drown out everything going on the hallway six inches away. Now that I think of it, I could probably find an app for that and save on the water bill.)
I’ve been going to therapy for a long time and done a lot of work figuring out why I hate certain things about myself and others but until now I never tried to figure out why I love things. Crazy, huh? Figuring out why we love the things we love might even more important than finding out why we hate the things we hate, right?
Whether you agree with that or not, that’s the kind of story we’re looking for at our next show, June 22, at Roy Street Coffee and Tea. The theme is “Sweet! – Stories of discovering what you love.”
Do you remember when you realized you loved music? Or baseball? Or your first sweetheart? Did you fall in love with swimming when you went over Niagara Falls in a barrel with your dad? Did you fall in love with Judo because your mother taught you how to throw your brother in the back yard? Maybe you fell in love with the law from watching Matlock! Please, God, let there be someone at the show who became a lawyer because of Andy Griffith.
Remember to keep it clean and under 8 minutes. Here are the rules and guidelines for telling a story at the show:
Practice out loud in the car or in the living room on the cat. Let me know if you have any questions.
I hope to see you on the 22nd.