After the Los Angeles funeral of my late father, Maurice Zolotow, a well-dressed, chic, trim woman came up to me and extended her hand. She had excellent posture, and her hair — a jet-black that looked neither harsh nor unnatural — was well-styled in a short, flattering, expensive cut. Her age was hard to guess (I figured out later that she was 78 at the time).
"I'm Margie Ferraro, I used to be Margie Hart," she said. "Your father used to… represent me."
I shook her hand. I thanked her for coming.
I didn't take it, or her, in fully. So many people I didn't know were introducing themselves to me, and I was dazed. My father's death, though he was 77, had been sudden. I missed him fiercely. I was focused on giving him a good send-off. All of this converged, making the whole surreal to me, as memorials often feel to mourners closest to the deceased.
And at that point I hadn't seen the video yet… the one I found going through his apartment.
It was of a talk he gave at Mills College, in Oakland, California, around 1990, titled "The Agony & Ecstacy of Being a Freelance Writer." In it, essentially, he riffs, free-form, no notes, on his life in writing professionally over a fifty year period. He does this for about 30 highly entertaining minutes.
He starts in fourth grade: "Our teacher told us to write about a pet. We didn't have a pet, so I made up a dog. I was dipping my pen in… only people who are very, very old, will remember dippping the pen in the ink to write. And the class stops, and I'm still writing… And my teacher picks up my pages and looks at them… I thought I was going to get in trouble for lying. She says, 'You wrote this.' I nod. She says, 'You're a writer.' " In the video Maurice gives an exaggerated shrug. "That's it. My destiny! I never had to see a guidance counselor… my vocation was just thrust upon me."
In his talk, he gets to an early job, being a press agent. "And every time I got a few dollars together I'd quit to be a writer… And I had one client, the stripper, Margie Hart, the famous ecdysiast, now she's married to Councilman Ferraro in Los Angeles. And she said, 'Look, why don't you give up your other clients and just work for me? I'll pay you what the agency's paying you, and you can have more time to write…' " Maurice, in the video, raises his eyebrows suggestively here, and says, "I think she may have had other designs, but…"
I never saw Margie Hart Ferraro again, only that one time, at the memorial. I looked her up on Wikipedia just now, and discovered she died in 2000.
Now, it is January, 2014. I am going through the papers of my late mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow. She died on November 19, 2013, at 98. I did this going-through-papers, in a more cursory fashion, with Maurice's, 23 years ago.
By then, Maurice and Charlotte had been divorced 22 years, about 2/3 of the length of their 33-year marriage. So most of his papers were in Los Angeles, where he'd moved to after she'd initiated the break-up in 1969. Yet, they had remained in contact, eventually amicable, and never going long without him proposing remarriage to her, often, throughout those 22 post-divorce years.
So it's probably not surprising that among Charlotte's papers, now, there turn out to be several boxes of his, from the very earliest days of their marriage.
Sooner or later, most adult children go through the objects left behind by their deceased parents. Few find it easy. Most find it sad. Almost all run into unanswerable questions, both immediate: should I save this or throw it out, and elegiac: why didn't I ask her/him about…" Most make discoveries, sometimes delightful, some discomfitting.
In this, I am no different from any adult child who undertakes this task. But because my parents were, in their way, each connective tissue in a larger cultural story — writing, publishing, in what many consider the respective Golden Ages of both children's books and magazines in America, and acted and moved in concert with many well-known and not so well-known public figures — my decison-making has another element.
What, of the letters, scrapbooks, photographs, manucripts, contracts, should be kept? (Almost everything). Where should it eventually be housed? (Don't know yet.) How should it be organized? (Also don't know yet).
But every so often I find something that makes me whoop with surprise.
Like finally finding — through an article Maurice wrote (clipping only; no date, and no title of magazine; maybe Collier's, maybe the Saturday Evening Post, maybe the early '30's?) — the young Margie Hart, the "stripteuse, " as he described her, "generally agreed to be one of the best undressed women in the United States, or for that matter, anywhere else. "
Our parents, the first people we come to know, who shape us when we are the tenderest of clay — can we ever, figuratively, undress them? Say truly what lies beneath them, what motivated them, what they meant, what happened?
We cannot, as death never fails to remind us. Being a child of, just like being a parent of, even being a husband or wife of, is to know that you can never fully know or be known by another human being. That we are all, finally, mysterious and "other" to others, even, perhaps especially, to those who love us best, and whom we love. Even the most transparent and truthful among us is filled with secrets. Even when we open one secret, we find another.
Is it sad, the immutable solo act that is each human being, no matter how well-integrated within him- or herself, is at the same time compartmentalized?
Is it interesting?
Oh yes. And, I think — at this moment, at least — that perhaps this interestingness is even larger than the sadness. Perhaps it leads us to never take the "other", whoever he or she is, for granted, as a known quantity.
As I, a writer, wander through the mysterious, fascinating, faceted lives of my parents as documented in all these thousands of pieces of paper, and as I live (and write) my own life, I again think, feel, believe — even though, as with all I look through, I have an infinity of unanswered questions — nothing is wasted.
Glad to have met you again today, Margie.
Click to see that video of Maurice…