Fresh Ground Stories: Who Do You Think You Are – Stories that define you

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.

Rules & Guidelines:

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.


Thank you!

Thank you to everyone who came out to the show last week. Yes, all 150+ of you. It was our biggest turnout ever. If you were there you’ll know we learned some important things that night:

1. Never go to Costco with Renata. She nearly derailed the entire Mideast peace process over by the VitaMix demo.

2. If you ever overdose on St. John’s Wart you should go to the emergency room and consult the janitor.

3. Gay square dancing is way more complicated than straight square dancing.

4. The phrase “Caramel Latte” is a great euphemism for almost anything.

Before I say any more I want to thank all the tellers who got onstage: Bill, Renata, Connie, Laura, Marcella, Erin, Ginger, Tracey, Taran, Kauni, Stacy, Vanda, Chris S, Tom, Chris M, Elliot, Norm and David. I’m grateful to all of you.

I’m also grateful for the people in the audience who were able to stay past 8:30 and support the folks who practiced their story all month and weren’t able to get up before our usual ending time.

I did let the show go longer than usual, almost an hour longer. I’m going to keep it to our regular 90 minutes in the future so no one has to decide whether to stay for one more story or go home and pay the babysitter. An hour and a half feels like the perfect length so we’ll stick to that as much as we can. I know it was crowded and I’m not sure what to do about that but the energy was great and it was a perfect start to the new year.

I do have an audio recording of everyone’s story. If you want a copy of yours email me and I’ll get it out to you. I only give out recordings to the person who told the story because most stories are pretty personal and the tellers don’t want the on the internet. Sometimes I’ll post a story on our Facebook page if I have permission.

If you have a story you’d like to tell that’s longer than eight minutes or simply isn’t a good fit for FGS there are two other great places to tell stories:

Contact them to see how to get on their shows. They are good people. Lots of folks from FGS end up telling at both those shows. The Seattle Storytellers Guild page has lots of other links and resources for either listening to live stories or telling them:

Ok, that’s all for now. Give me a few days to get the official invite out for our next show on February 26. The theme is The Best Bad Thing – Stories of Bad Things That Turned Out Good.

Let me know if you have any questions. See you on the 26th :)


Fresh Ground Stories: Starting Over – Stories of Second Chances

There are few things that make me feel better about life than getting a second chance. I always assume that I have one chance at anything and if I mess it up it I’m done for good. But every now and then I’m reminded that the world is full of second chances and that sometimes my number comes up and I get another shot.

The first time I remember someone giving me a second chance was back in ‘94 or ‘95. I had said something rude or sarcastic to my friend Sarah and I knew I had to go back and apologize. I waited a day and then another day and then another day after that. I desperately wanted to apologize because she was a good friend and I knew I owed it to her but I kept putting it off because I was convinced she was going to end the friendship the next time she saw me. As bad as I felt for saying whatever it was I said I felt even worse about being told to my face that I wasn’t worth the trouble anymore.

Finally, I slunk back to her house and apologized. She said, “That’s ok. I figured you were just having a bad day.” What?! How could this be?? She had me dead to rights and let me off scot free.

Sarah, I am sure, does not remember this. And even though I had certainly been given second chances before in life this was the first time I remember feeling that I probably didn’t deserve one and got it anyway.

And that is the theme for our next show: Starting Over – Stories of Second Chances. Tell us a story about getting a second chance or simply starting over and what it’s meant to you ever since.

Remember to practice out loud on friends or pets and keep it under 8 minutes.

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.

Rules & Guidelines:

I hope to see you at our next show on Thursday, January 22, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.


You Got This

From Cyan James:

You know that moment when you realize things maybe aren’t really OK? That you, or someone you really care about, is struggling? And you don’t know what to do. But somehow you keep going.

Let’s not pretend it easy. But let’s talk about how amazing that is—we somehow find the little moments to keep us going, and maybe it’s not completely OK, but it’s more OK, and we go on…

Please join us for an evening of stories about those moments. We’ll have a featured group of seasoned storytellers go first, and then will be the open mic when it could be your turn on stage.

We’re looking for your true stories five minutes or under, practiced ahead of time or told in the moment. If this isn’t your night to tell a story, join the rest of us in listening and in helping scrub away some of that toxic stigma that surrounds talking about the tougher times. We can’t wait to see you there.

7pm, Friday, October 24
Roy St. Coffee And Tea | 700 Broadway E., Seattle, WA

For more information, contact Cyan James at

Once in the middle of a Michigan winter I thought I couldn’t be any colder. Or more depressed. The heat had turned off, I’d lost a job I cared about, I couldn’t find a therapist, my best friend had moved out, and I didn’t know what was coming next. I put on the whole works: boots, double layers of stockings, my biggest coat, mittens, scarf, hat. For an hour I walked around the ice-glazed streets and watched the little plays unfolded in the bright windows of all the other houses.

I watched an old man slowly get up from his kitchen table. Steam rolled upwards from the spout of his kettle, and I imagined the kettle was gently shrieking. He poured himself a mug of tea—apple spice, I imagined. He cupped his hands around his mug and leaned his face over it. He drank slowly, staring off at the wall, and we were both alone, but he didn’t seem lonely. Watching him, I didn’t feel so alone either. I was still going to be depressed for a long time. It wasn’t a moment that changed everything. But it was a moment of relief and beauty I needed.

What moments have gotten you through during those wrenching times? Maybe you’ve wrestled with cold, heavy depression, too. Maybe you hear things no one else does, or you can’t see those ways you matter, or you just can’t turn off all the whirling, exhausting thoughts. But you kept going. You’re still going. Tell us how you did it. Or join us and listen to how other people did. You never know how much a stranger can help!

For this special storytelling showcase and open mic on mental health, we’re looking for ways you felt really challenged. What did you do? What helped you out? What do you wish others had known about you during that time?
We’re looking for true, personal stories that still mean something to you days, months or years later. I hope to see you at our next show on Friday, October 24, 7:00pm at the Roy St Cafe.

I’m representing an organization called Emerging Leaders in Science and Society (ELISS). We’re partnering with Paul Currington’s Fresh Ground Stories to hold this special event showcasing mental strength.

Rules & Guidelines:

Cyan, Paul, Eva, and the rest of us at ELISS and Fresh Ground Stories

Image by Daren Newman


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