Many years ago, during my career as an actress, while reading for one of Martin Scorceses’ films, he mentioned to me that he’d never been happy with his film The King of Comedy. He just hadn’t gotten it right. If he could do it again, he’d make changes, he said in so many words. “What? I love that film, it’s perfect,” I replied. In my corner of the creative universe, I can relate to that sentiment. It’s not unlike those old Ginzo knife infomercials that always included the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!” and here’s one story about my mother that I wish I’d found a way to include in my latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are.
A year before her death, when we knew that her time was limited, I asked her a series of questions for an article I was writing for Oprah’s website about end of life conversations to be sure to have with your loved ones. My mother told me that she was the happiest, “When I am being useful to others.” I have to confess, this took me by surprise because all of our conversations of late had centered on my parents’ health and financial woes.
During the mid-nineteen seventies, my mother and her friend Deanna signed on to a tour of major cities of Russia and smaller towns further east. Both Deanna and my mother loved to travel, but they had another agenda.
Through contacts assembled by Hadassah, Deanna and my mother obtained a list of medications that were badly needed by Jews in Russia known at the time as Refusniks. These were both secular and religious folks who were seeking to emigrate from Russia who’d been denied or refused visas. Many had been arrested, were unable to find work and were suffering an impoverished existence.
Shirley and Deanna made appointments with their doctors in Miami Beach and asked for prescriptions. Not a single one of the doctors they approached said no. In addition to the medications, they packed suitcases full of clothing, like blue jeans, that the Refusniks could wear or sell on the black market.
When they arrived in Moscow, they had to sneak out of the hotel past the “key ladies,” the tour guides who sat watch in the hallways to make certain that tourists didn’t wander off. Once on the street, they located pay phones and dialed the phone numbers they’d been given. Because she was fluent in Russian, Deanna was able to converse with the contacts in Yiddish and they got directions and took subways to the apartments of the various people to deliver the medications and clothing.
They returned to the states with empty suitcases but with rich memories of their encounters with these marginalized Jews. This trip remained one of the highlights of her life.
Because my mother passed before this book, which is about family legacies, was published, this story’s absence seems particularly bittersweet to me. As aware as I was that I’d inherited numerous of her attributes: her long limbs and her wry sense of humor, I didn’t connect my own do-gooder streak to an inheritance from her while I was writing the book. That only came more recently.Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in
Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher’s Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival, and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation. Check back on Thursday to read more from Annabelle Gurwitch.
Annabelle Gurwitch is a Thurber Prize for American Humor Writing finalist and New York Times bestselling author of five books, most recently You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility (Counterpoint, now out in paperback) a New York Times’ Favorite Book About Healthy Living 2021 and a Good Morning America Must Read. She was the longtime host of Dinner & a Movie on TBS, a regular NPR contributor, and has written for The New Yorker, New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, and WSJ amongst other publications. She co-hosts the Tiny Victories podcast on the Maximum Fun Podcast Network.