On the Importance of Making her Laugh ….

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“I took you into this world Thomas, and I can take you out!” She liked to say that and it was always impossible not to laugh when she did, for both of us. Mom stole that line from Bill Cosby, and it brought her great joy. She also often said “Hello Handsome!” with great enthusiasm, usually referring to one of her grandsons and sometimes to the dog when she was in a very good mood. It took me a couple of years to realize that she got that line from “Young Frankenstein!” “Bitterman, I fell out of the car! Did you see that Bitterman? I fell out of the car!” – that was another favorite, and she would say it doing a pretty damn adorable version of Dudley Moore’s drunken Arthur from the movie of the same name. I’m pretty sure “Arthur” was her favorite movie of all time. I’m not sure how she would have felt about the remake, as I haven’t seen it, but if it’s funny that’s good enough. Mom loved to laugh.

OK, everyone loves to laugh. Mostly everyone. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I loved making my mom laugh. And I was good at it. Of course almost everything I did to make her laugh was stolen from Saturday Night Live or the popular comics of my childhood. One Christmas Morning my brother John and I left the family room, stuffed our shirts with the discarded wrapping paper and returned to perform an impromptu “Hans and Franz Merry Christmas.” Sure we were entertaining everyone, but we did it for Mom, and she loved it. On another Christmas, my then brother-in-law Grady accompanied me on the piano as I sang “Chopping Broccoli” from the very funny Dana Carvey SNL skit. It became a yearly tradition of sorts, “Sing broccoli Tommy, c’mon, please, for me?” she would ask. My mom had a lovely childlike innocence, a brilliant and loving inner glow that is hard to come by – it was hard to say no to her.

As I got older my Mom-comedy got a bit edgier. One weekend when I was home from Law School I came down to join Mom, Dad and my sister Jaclyn for breakfast. Mom asked “how did you sleep?” I responded, “not that great, do you think you and dad could keep it down tonight?” Mom looked at me puzzled for a brief moment until she realized what I was insinuating. Dad immediately started laughing, then Mom began to blush. Of course they hadn’t kept me up the night before, it was just fun to embarrass her – because after the embarrassment – laughter. “Oh, Tommy you are so bad.” The older I got, the more I would hear that. Mom rarely used profanity and we were never allowed to as children but once I was in College I used to drop curse words just to get a rise out of her. “Don’t say that word Thomas …” “What word Mom … “Shit”? Shitty, shit, shit, shitty, Shit!” She’d laugh, shake her head and .. “Oh, you are so bad.”

OK, maybe my mom-comedy was not edgy, it was juvenile. But it worked. For a while anyway. Mom developed Alzheimer’s when she was about 58 and it took her fast. By the time she was 60, she was gone. For all intents and purposes, Mom was in a coma-like state for about the last 6 months of her life, and the previous few months were not much better: she had not only forgotten who we were, but who she was and what it meant to forget. There was a lot of time that she would just sit there, unaware of where she was, who she was, unaware of anything.

One afternoon I was sitting with her in the living room. There was a James Bond movie on HBO, but neither of us were watching it. Mom appeared to be staring in the direction of the tv (the disease had progressed quite a bit at that point) and I was playing with my new laptop. I looked up in time to see the credits roll and the name of the producer: Albert R. Broccoli. I said “Look Mom, chopping broccoli,” neither expecting her to hear me nor to respond. But after a brief moment she gave a small, faint, tired laugh, looked at me with a focus I hadn’t seen in months and said, “Never stop making me laugh.” By the time I realized what had happened and before I started weeping, she was gone again.

It’s been over 12 years since she passed. I’m not sure I believe in an “After Life” but if there is a Heaven she’s up there and she’s probably watching. While I’m sure she has had her moments of thinking “what the heck is Tommy doing with his life?” I do hope she’s laughing and I hope she knows how important she continues to be.

So here’s to Joan Ellen Boyd O’Keefe. She brought me into this world; she loved me before anyone else did; and she loved me simply because I was.

Happy Mother’s Day.

The Irish Witch

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I met her on the first day of the month-long winter intensive at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts – Winter 2009. It was the first day, or perhaps the second. (Everyday concepts like time and space tend to meld or at least warp whilst in a program like that.) I was among a group of 40 actors and educators seeking a deeper connection to and understanding of Shakespeare’s work. We had just finished a morning of movement exercises. The kind of exercises where you have to move like an angry person; or a happy person; or yourself as a child; or a color; or one of the seven deadly sins. We had finished one or all of those exercises when a little gray-haired woman sitting on the side (a woman I had failed to notice previously while I was Sloth, or 6 years old or Fuchsia) looked up at me and said, “You’re O’Keefe.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t saying it to snap me out of the previous exercise – that wasn’t necessary. She said it, I believe, so I knew that she knew who I was, as a manner introduction. I replied, “Yes,” or, “That’s me,” or something more clever. She just said, “A good Irish boy.” She said it with a wry smile and a glint in her eye, and I immediately learned two things: that we both shared the understanding that the term “good” is highly subjective; and that I really liked this woman.

I soon found out that the knowing, little gray-haired woman was Clare Reidy and one of my Basics teachers. Basics is a class we took every day for the first week in which 10 or so students worked to better understand, connect to, and perform Shakespeare’s text. Clare’s specialty in this class was Shakespeare’s imagery. Her knowledge went so far beyond a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s text: she had an amazing command over the historical, religious and symbolic facts that serve as context for Shakespeare’s works. Her insight (especially when coupled with that of my other teacher Dennis Krausnick) was mind-blowing. With her instruction, Shakespeare’s words took on new life for me. As an actor, I understood, I connected to, and explored the depth of Shakespeare’s words more than I ever thought possible. As a spectator, I watched actors breathe new life into ancient texts. And it was Clare that helped us do that. Her overwhelming comprehension, her passion about the work, and her ability to convey both of these gifts to her students was almost other-worldly. Which is why I wasn’t particularly surprised when she told us she was a witch. An Irish Witch, to be precise.

I remember more than a few students asking, “Is she really a witch?” But I didn’t pay any heed to the question because I was pretty sure that she was. Just as I knew that Clare knew that “good” was a subjective term, I knew that her being a witch had nothing to do with childhood story time witches. She was an Irish Witch because she was schooled in history and art and literature and folklore and the way she worked that knowledge, the way she shared her passion, was nothing short of magical. And she was Irish. If she hadn’t given up “the drink” years before I met her, we would have shared quite a few glasses of Irish Whiskey.

She was not only the first Irish Witch I ever met, but she was also the funniest. A year after we met, I was back at Shakespeare & Co. as an acting intern. During our dropping-in workshop – where we learned a fantastic method for connecting to the text – I was sitting next to the little Irish troublemaker while two actors were putting up the scene from “The Tempest,” Act. III, s. 1, between Ferdinand and Miranda. As the scene began, Clare leaned over and whispered, “I always wanted to cast Miranda as a 13 or 14 year-old girl, pre-pubescent, right before she starts coming into her sexuality.” Clare’s statement was not a comment on the lovely and talented Emily (early 20’s) who was putting the scene up in class, she was once again showing her knowledge of and passion for Shakespeare’s works (Clare acted and directed when she wasn’t teaching.) Towards the end of the scene, Wolfe Coleman (a tall, strapping, actor much too handsome for his own good) as Ferdinand, kneels before Miranda and says:

I am in my condition
A prince, Miranda; I do think, a king;
I would, not so!–and would no more endure
This wooden slavery than to suffer
The flesh-fly blow my mouth. Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service; there resides,
To make me slave to it; and for your sake
Am I this patient log–man.

MIRANDA:

Do you love me?

FERDINAND:

O heaven, O earth, bear witness to this sound
And crown what I profess with kind event
If I speak true! if hollowly, invert
What best is boded me to mischief! I
Beyond all limit of what else i’ the world
Do love, prize, honour you. Hear my soul speak:
The very instant that I saw you, did
My heart fly to your service; there resides,
To make me slave to it; and for your sake
Am I this patient log–man.

Clare immediately looks at me and whispers, “on second thought, I’d cast Miranda as a 76-year-old woman.” How could I not laugh? And yes, I’m pretty sure I got the stink eye from Dave Demke, which caused Clare to laugh.

That summer Clare helped me get to the heart of The Duke in “Measure for Measure.” She was invaluable not only as a resource for acting, but she was a supportive friend. Someone to whom I could bitch and complain to – we had a tendency to gossip, especially because we knew it was not what good Irish boys and girls do. The next summer I didn’t get to see her nearly as much as we were both busy doing different projects. But the little time I spent with her was a joy.

My favorite Irish Witch passed away this weekend. I could write about how I wish I knew her better or longer, how I regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to “go grab coffee” as we promised each other we would – but that misses the point. I won’t express my gratitude for what time I did have with Clare by being greedy and wishing for more. I’m grateful to have crossed paths with this Irish Witch.

Clare left an indelible impression on my life. Two weeks ago, I was in class working on Hamlet’s “Oh that this too, too, solid flesh would melt,” when my teacher complimented me. She said my imagery was fantastic – she could see “the un-weeded garden that grows to seed.” I said thank you twice: once aloud to her and the other in my mind, to Clare.

I don’t particularly believe in heaven, but it’s times like this that make me want to. I’d like to think that Clare is up there now, gossiping with Shakespeare himself and telling my mother that I’m still a “good Irish boy.” Give ’em Hell in heaven, Clare. You will be missed.