How to love one’s own “character” after loss – this and more from London-based comedian, Steve Jameson when he speaks with memory artist, Nancy Gershman about shattered self-worth in the wake of loss. On stage, Jameson plays “Sol Bernstein,” a washed up Jewish Borscht Belt comic trying to come to terms with the modern world. See Sol in action on solbernstein.com and on YouTube.Even at the cemetery to a bawling griever: “Tell it like it is” Learn to accept that a parent’s poor choices is their loss, not yours Work your story of loss into a product that hopefully goes nowhere Want to be remembered for “X”? Start spreading the word Help a griever fall in love again, with their own character Your To Do List
“I went to a shiva recently. The mother of Mike, my agent, had just died. I’d never met his father before but Mike insisted I tell him the story about what happened between my father and me at my mother’s grave.
My mother had died 8 years before, and when she died, Dad had died too in some sense. So for eight years I’d take Dad once a year to see the grave. But this year he was particularly down and I wanted to lift him out of his dark mood. My own belief of death is pretty much that you pass and you’re gone and that’s it. So being the Good Son I said to Dad, “I know you believe she’s gone to a better place and she’s waiting for you.” Dad then turns to the headstone and says, “Stella: whenever you’re ready, call me and I’ll be there.” But then something clicks on (or off?) in my head, and what comes out of my mouth?
“The last person on this fucking earth she wants to see is you!”
But it was true. Dad wasn’t a good husband. He really loved Mum, but he was a crazy Gemini! He could turn on a dime. And Dad turns to me laughing, and says, “You’re fucking right.” He knew he might have lied to himself all these years. He had to. This was from that time when – if a couple split up – they wouldn’t have known what to do or where to go. Get divorced and start new lives? No. Your parents stayed together for spite!
I’m not sure what he missed. My mother’s company? The arguments? When my father died I only sat shiva for 1 night. The rule book says you should sit for 7 days but there is a new thing now in Judaism: you make your own rules. My dad and I talked about it beforehand; one day of shiva would be good enough.”
“My maternal grandfather Simon, left Russia in the first wave in the 1900’s for England. He didn’t like it particularly and decided instead to go to New York. At the same time, my grandmother Dora came from Russia with her brother and they too went to New York. Simon met and married a woman, and had a son with her. I don’t know how long he was there but he left them both in New York and moved back to England. My grandmother’s brother didn’t like New York so they too came back to England. I don’t know the circumstances but eventually Simon and Dora met in London and were married and had three children.
Fast forward: my grandparents have since died. And a first cousin of my mother’s some years back decides to go to Miami for a holiday. So this cousin is sitting on the beach, and as Jewish people are wont to do, she meets some people, they talk and the woman asks my mother’s cousin: ‘Do you know a Simon Slutsky?’ ‘Yes,’ she says. The woman says, ‘I heard he married and had a son and left them back in New York. He was a real bastard,’ added the woman on the beach.
When my mother learns of this from her cousin, she starts to think she is illegitimate and it breaks her heart for the rest of her life. Of course, Mum’s understanding of “illegitimate” was that she was not Simon’s first child. The really weird thing about it was that Simon’s first son came over to England from New York to see his father, and Simon, my grandfather, wouldn’t see him. But the funny thing was that he worshiped me!
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was his daughter’s child. Anyway, Simon died one year before my barmitzvah.
I tried to explain to Mum that she was born within a marriage and that she was loved. My New Jersey friend would say about all this fugedaboutit, but Mum could not forget the abandonment his wife and child. Being Jewish, Mum had to be this tragic figure.”
“A great loss I experienced was when my best friend ran off with my first wife.
I remember the judge saying, “I understand your wife became friendly with a Mr. So and So… a little too friendly.“ British justice. I just looked at him as if to say, I can’t believe you just said that. Accused of adultery, my wife didn’t even deny it. And you know, my friend and my first wife are still together.
What surprised me most was that I cried a helluva lot even more than when I lost my mother years later when she was dying from a heart attack. I was already in my 50’s: a man; an adult. I had been living on my own and made a life for myself and didn’t need my mum as much. I questioned that. Was it a selfish thing?
There just was something so unmanly about being a cuckold. Here came this event which I never saw coming. I was young; 23, and I knew I had to make a life for myself. I knew I would have to become resilient. So I threw myself into my work (which was music). Interestingly, none of the music I wrote reflected what I was going through. A healthy sign?”
“I moved to this apartment with my partner, Wendy two years ago. For 20 years up to this point, I lived in a studio apartment and used to have in photo frames these collages of my family. Consequently I saw them every day. The living and the dead. My mother, my father, cousin, aunts and uncles, my son, me and my son … on and on. You could sit in the bathroom and fromthere see the pictures in my 5’ x 7’ hallway.
When I look at those pictures, I have so many memories. I have two cousins who Simon loved too. The younger one, who is now 72, and I are still very close. I feel like he is the brother I never had. We speak about once a week over the phone and reminisce. We talk about way back when and I often think how nice it is to be remembered in people’s thoughts … that somebody will say, ‘Remember Uncle Steve? He was a real character.’”
“As a comedian, I started out by playing “me.” I guess I wanted to be somewhere between Wood Allen and Bob Hope, but then I created Sol Bernstein; an old, washed up Jewish Borscht Belt comic. One night, in the early days of the character, I was doing a gig in Portsmouth, not getting any laughs, when I hear a voice out of the darkness yell, ‘You’re dying, mate.’
Now “Sol” worked very clean at that time and so I answered him back as Sol: “Vel, everybody’s dying.” And some woman in the front stands up, turns around to face the audience and says, ‘You’re all cunts. This guy is really funny. He’s going to be a big star.’ And she starts applauding me.
Still, I came off the stage, sat in a corner and thought, Tonight I want to crush my car and die. I felt I was going nowhere as a comic. I wanted to be a comedian, but at that moment, I felt I just didn’t have the gumption and balls to do it anymore.
Then out of nowhere this Irish comedian, Brendan Dempsey who was on the show with me that night and is a great mimic – he sees what state I’m in. And it’s like he’s reading my mind because the next thing I know, he says in Sol Bernstein’s voice, ‘Vut, are you crazy? You got to go back to London and do another show tomorrow.’ I cracked up. Here’s this guardian angel, reminding me that the show must go on. That tomorrow is always a different show, a different night, a different audience.
That’s why I love this business.”
It is nice to be remembered in people’s thoughts, isn’t it? And it’s a curious thing to think how friends and relatives are likely to remember us.
That’s when Steve Jameson reminded me of my quote books. Every time someone I love says something hilarious or particularly deep, I jot it down in their quote book, which I keep on the top of my filing cabinet for quick accessibility. Each one is adorned with that person’s photograph on the cover. Some are no more than 8″x10″ pieces of paper folded once or twice, and stapled together. Others are beautifully lined notebooks with ribbon bookmarks.
The idea behind creating quote books was memory preservation. See, I never trust that I’ll remember some great quote, verbatim! But equipped with a quote book, now I’ve got all these choice nuggets to use at a dinner party (or God forbid, at a funeral when my brain is likely to turn to mush). It’s a kind of wholesome spying at our house, as both parties know exactly what’s going on. One person yells “That’s going in your quote book!” and the other person lets out an operatic, “ugh.”
My thinking is that if it’s ok to to shape one’s legacy through memory pictures, isn’t it just as kosher to curate a collective memory of someone through their quote book? Because I can’t think of anything more flattering than when I spout yet another doozy, and my son goes racing for paper and pencil to jot it down.