When I started this column 10 years ago, I was really bossy. I insisted you do things like recycle and shop local and volunteer. After six years, it occurred to me most of you do recycle and shop local and volunteer and those who don’t, well, a column in a free magazine wasn’t going to change that.
Then I went the advice column route, which I might return to, wherein I attempted to solve the problems of hardworking Park Slopers in hopes of providing you perspective or at the very least, a healthy dose of schadenfreude. But now, that’s feeling a bit stale. So I’m taking a break from that, too. This issue I’m going to tell you something that happened to me and then I’ll attempt to make sense of it. If you’re bored by introspection, check back next issue when, most likely, I’ll be back giving advice to a compulsive liars and adulterers.
Twenty years ago, I taught improv to wannabe child stars in LA. One night I was waiting for parents to pick up their kids when I noticed an older woman, alone, clutching her purse on the corner of the busy street and our parking lot. Odd. In LA people are outside for two reasons: They are walking to their car from a nearby building or they are walking to a nearby building from their car. This woman was small but sturdy with a mop of wiry gray hair and wearing pants that they used to sell in the back of TV Guide in ten colors. She was making a great effort to not look confused but she it was obvious she was. She was walking in a figure eight pattern in blue terrycloth slippers. After the last parent pulled away, I went over and asked if she was okay.
She was lost. She walked out of her house for a breath of fresh air and got turned around. Her daughter would be worried. Could I help her? Of course, I’d escort her back. She told me her name was Mary Murdoch and then she gave me her address. I went to my car to get my Thomas Guide, the pre GPS, indispensible street atlas/bible, and looked it up.
The address she gave me was about 25 blocks from the acting school across several busy streets. Was it possible she’d been walking for an hour? She didn’t look exhausted and certainly someone else would’ve stopped her and offered help. I asked for her phone number to let her daughter know she was safe. She couldn’t recall it. The heat, she offered, she couldn’t think straight. She repeated the address and asked me to drive her there.
When you decide to help a stranger there’s a moment when you regret it. This happened after I helped her into my car and shut the door. What was I risking in helping her? Could she be having a stroke? A heart attack? What if she died in my car? I decided if her behavior changed I’d drive her to the emergency room. I attempted small talk as we drove across West LA in my Mercury Tracer. At a stoplight I glanced over at her. She was looking out her window smiling, beaming even.
We pulled up to the address. It was a small neat craftsman with a front porch that ran the length of the front of the house. I helped her out of the car and up the path, but she stopped short of the front steps. I walked up and knocked on the door. A woman in her late forties answered but kept the screen door closed.
“Hi,” I said, “I think I have your mom?” I said gesturing over the shoulder to Mary who had turned a quarter of the way in the path to face a hibiscus shrub.
“My mom died 10 years ago,” said the woman at the door.
Mary walked up behind me. “This is my house,” Mary said softly studying a rattan bench on the porch, “but it’s different.”
“What’s your name?” the woman asked Mary.
“Mary. Mary Murdoch.” Mary looked down at her slippers like a schoolgirl caught late in the halls.
The woman made a short gasp and turned to me.
“We bought this house from The Murdochs twenty five years ago. Her parents?” She addressed Mary again whose eyes were still on her slippers. “Was your mom Lucille?”
Mary’s head shot up. “Yes, that’s my mother. Do you know her?”
The woman opened the screen door and gestured for us both to come inside.
The woman, Karen, and I introduced ourselves to one another and strategized. We asked Mary for her purse and checked the contents. The only thing inside was a green plastic checkbook cover with a single deposit slip from an account belonging to Joanne McMaster. No address below the name but there was, miraculously, a phone number.
“Hi, I’m with your mother,” I said to the woman who answered.
“What? No, you’re not,” she sounded annoyed. “Ma?“ A pause. And then to someone in the room with her “Shit, Mom’s got out again.”
I told her the address and it was her turn to gasp. “That was my grandparents house! We’ll be right there.”
Ten minutes later, Joanne, her husband Al, her kids—a boy around 8, and a girl maybe 10—and Lisa, a friend, were in Karen’s front hall. Mary sat on a chair facing into the living room with her back to her family.
“She’s been doing this now for a few weeks,” Joanne said. “She has an ID bracelet but she takes it off before she leaves the house. We put a card in her purse—she tears it up and throws it in the wastebasket. It’s as if she wants to be lost. I can’t watch her every minute and we don’t want to lock her in.” She looked to us for answers or maybe forgiveness. Karen and I smiled sadly back at her.
Conversation turned to memories of the house so Karen gave the family a tour. I stayed with Mary where we could hear Joanne saying “I like what you did with the kitchen,” “…there used to be a wall here” and “…we used to play marbles on the floor there.” Back in the front hall, the family offered their thanks for helping Mary and we said our goodbyes. I got back in my car and watched Joanne pull her mini van away from the curb. Mary was in the back seat with the kids, looking very small and—was I imagining it?—embarrassed.
Over the course of the next twenty years I would find myself returning again and again to that night as a moment when something shifted for me. Soon after that night, I got fired from that horrible teaching job, gave up my bungalow by the beach and made plans to leave Los Angeles for grad school in NYC. What about that night struck such a deep chord in me? Over the past couple days I’ve been turning it over in my mind and just recently, like ten minutes ago, I hit on something. My experience with Mary that night had a dream-like quality so I decided to try to interpret it in that context. Jung believed that dream characters can represent an unacknowledged aspect of the dreamer. So if Mary was me, what was she trying to tell me? Or rather, what message did she tell my subconscious that got me to pack my bags and leave LA two decades ago?
This is what I’ve come up with: Mary had dementia. Because of that, when she strayed from home, she’d gotten turned around. When she attempted to go back to the home she remembered, it wasn’t as she left it. Someone else was living there and they had knocked the walls down and put an island in.
At that time, I, too, was walking the streets of LA in my metaphorical slippers where nothing looked familiar. I had wandered from home and was, like Mary, in need of a stranger to guide me back. Los Angeles was like Mars to me. I think it’s like that for everyone who moves there at first. You either adjust or you don’t. If you do, you can make a home there. If you don’t, it’s hard to breathe and there’s nothing to nourish you. For the seven years I lived there, I waited for my own version of a Mercury Tracer to take me to safety. While waiting, I lost my bearings, my confidence and I believe, my sense of self. Seeing Mary lose her way set me into motion. I had to leave. To Joanne and her family, the night we met was just another time that Mary got out. For me, our meeting was an awakening.
They say we differ from animals because of our thumbs. Another difference is that we are the only species to tell stories to one another to make sense of our lives. This was one of mine. I’m sure you have hundreds of your own. I wish I could hear them.
See you next time.