My "Story Spine" Summer

July 6, 2023

This week I taught “Story Spine” to my memoir class. In preparation I wrote this as a how-to example.

That’s the thing about Improv exercises, they are not just about being funny. If you have the courage to speak authentically, they can reveal surprising truth.  So here goes:

Once upon a time a girl was born at Leroy Sanitarium also known as Leroy Hospital in New York City. She was taken back and forth to the hospital/sanitarium for nine months because she couldn’t breathe for very long on her own. Then the doctor told her parents they had done all they could. Then one day when no one was looking, she stood up in her crib. The nurse ran in to her parents who were figuring out what to do with this information. In her native accent the nurse announced, “That’s one tough little Irishman!”

The baby came home and only had athsma issues once in a while until she was 25. She grew up, had friends, had boyfriends, went to college in the woods of New Hampshire and then came back to NYC to be an actress. After several years working in theater she moved to Los Angeles where, ironically, she booked a Broadway show. After touring major cities she landed back in NYC. She got her own apartment there. Then a month after settling in, the show got bad reviews and was scheduled to close. During this time her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The show closed but she stayed in NYC to be with him. Because she wasn’t interested in wallowing in grief after he died, she decided to get out of NYC and head back to California. Because her father had recently died she was very drawn to a young man she met who had lost his mother a few years before. Because they had both lost parents prematurely, and he made her laugh and he gave the best hugs – hugs that reminded her of her father but not in a creepy way - she quickly grew to love him and they married. Because she wasn’t sure she didn’t want children they removed all obstacles to getting pregnant and put it in God’s hands. And then she got pregnant. Because she fell madly in love with her first son she became very focused on having another baby. Because she was what they called a “geriatric mother,” it took her 2 years, one miscarriage and 2 fertility doctors until she was able to give birth to her second. Because he had respiratory problems too, her mother was very tense and made most of his birth about her and her fear of “going through that again.” Because her mother made everything about her, she was grateful when her mother returned to NYC and she was free to raise her children.

Because she was raising her children she didn’t want to be out at night anymore telling jokes. Because she didn’t want to be out at night, she started publishing stories. Because she missed being out at night, she produced a show one night every 6 weeks where she and her friends could tell their stories. Because the show was a big hit these stories were published as an anthology for St. Martin’s press. Because she had a good experience with her editor, she met with the woman to tell her she should be an editor too. Because the editor could sense her drive, she told her to write her own book this time. Because she had written an article about using the tools of laughter to stay married, she came up with a book proposal. And then she met the right people at the right time and got a book deal. With great support from the Jewish community and landed a 15 city book tour with her book, “Take My Spouse, Please.”

When she was on her book tour she got a call from her mother’s best friend, “Your mother is arguing with waiters and can’t fill out a deposit slip.” Because she knew her mother argued with waiters this did not surprise her, but not being able to fill out a deposit slip did. She called her sister and they both flew to NYC to figure out how to care for their mother.

And then her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Because her mother had Alzheimer’s disease and was losing her mind, she brought her from NYC to Los Angeles to be near her and her family. One morning four years later, after sleeping on a blue gym mat next to her mother’s bed with the rhythmic whir of the oxygen machine keeping time all night, her mother died. Because both her parents had died, grief would clobber her when she least expected it.

Then three years later her younger son was going to Israel during the summer and she decided this was a great opportunity to spend time in her hometown of NYC. And then she booked some work there which made her happy since now it could be a work vacation which was always better for her than a vacation, vacation. And then she arrived in NYC and she remembered her father’s death. She remembered his body being wheeled away. She remembered how alone she felt wandering the streets of NYC that night 30 years before. And then she decided exercise would be good so she rented a Citibike and rode from her sublet on 43rd St. to 72nd St. and sat on the bench overlooking the Hudson river that she and sister had dedicated to their mother. She thought about crying there but was distracted worrying if the bike was allowed to be on the path next to the bench.

That night was the 4th of July so she went with a friend to see the fireworks exploding over the East River. Walking back from 55th and Sutton Place they walked past the building she lived in as a little girl – 320 E. 57th St. They also passed the arched doorway of the building where she had been taken by a strange man when she was eight years old and the fear she felt when he closed the door behind her. The images came back in a flash, the small ceramic tiles on the floor, the dim lighting, her hand on something she didn’t want to touch. The fear and confusion she felt when he pulled himself together, turned his back and walked out the door and away from her down Second avenue.

And then she blinked this image away and was back again in 2023 with her friend who was talking about the value of letting sadness be sad, because it’s only in the letting tears out that we make room for laughter and joy. “The only way out is through,” her friend said,
“So you need to free yourself, said, as one singular firework went off behind us. She nodded and agreed and they kept walking west. To break the silence her friend asked,

“Can I treat you to an ice cream?”

“Sure,” she said, hoping they wouldn’t pass anywhere open so she could go to her sublet and sit on the nubby, gray couch and let her sadness be what it was, sad. And then she did just that and let herself sob big ugly sobs thinking they would never stop. And then they did. And finally, much to her surprise she felt lighter.