This is the sixty year story of how my shy, neurotic schoolteacher mother with a passion for baking, and my charismatic actor father with a penchant for carousal, met at age five, dated at fourteen, ran into each other at twenty-five, and finally fell in love ten years later.
How many years have you two known each other?
D: Since 1951.
M: Which makes it 55 years.
D: It’s more than that! I’m 64!
M: Oh! Okay… 59 years. We met when we were 5 at Commodore Sloat Elementary in San Francisco.
And how long have you been married?
M (laughing): It’ll be 28 years in December… and 28 years since we moved in together next Monday.
So you moved in and then you got married six months later?
M: To the horror of our parents!
D: I swear they thought she was pregnant.
But let’s backtrack to kindergarten. Dad, what do you remember?
D: She looked like a monkey! And my favorite toy was this stuffed monkey, a farmer monkey with a little straw hat and these bib overalls… and she looked just like him, as far as I was concerned.
So you liked her.
D: So I liked her because of that.
M: He used to chase me. And I don’t know if it was because I couldn’t pronounce “O’Connell” but I lovingly called him “Cuckoo Clock.”
D: But there was this other guy she was interested in! I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this.
M: Who was it? John Sweringer?
D: No, he was my best friend! This guy had kind of a round, puffy face and I think he was a very funny kid.
M: How come you know this and I don’t?
D: Because he was my bitter rival! I just hated this kid. …Greg?
M: Greg Dobbs?
D: No, not Greg Dobbs.
M: Well I have no idea who he was. How did you know that I liked him?
D: Because you were hanging around him all the time… I mean, it was probably a day—but a day in the life of a kindergartner is a huge period of time.
But after kindergarten, Mom, you went to a different school.
M: There was a new school built in our neighborhood and Grandma wanted us to be able to walk to school, so I started there in second grade. So I didn’t really see him—
D: Except for one time. I was walking with a pal of mine through Lakeside Village past this shoe store—
M: Sommer & Kaufman.
D: —and it had a big plate glass window. As I walked past, I looked in and there was this little blonde girl with curls, trying on shoes with her mother. And I thought, Oh my god, it’s Jill Foreman! I don’t think I tapped on the window, but you saw me, right?
M: I don’t remember… I have more memories in junior high. I was more of a human being then.
D: In any case, me ol’ heart went pitty pat.
M: In junior high school, I would see him walking down the hall… with his distinctive walk.
What was his walk?
D: Should I even tell her this? There was this older guy who was kind of a brute, and one day as he walked past me he said, “O’Connell, why do you walk like a girl?” From that point on, I became like Sailor Bob… (swaggers across the room swinging his arms like an ape)
M: No, it’s Popeye the Sailor Man! That’s what it is!
But Dad, you were popular, weren’t you?
D: Oh, I tried desperately to be popular.
M: He was really popular! I mean, he wasn’t a jock.
D: I wasn’t with the cool guys… but I was reasonably funny and I was Student Body President.
M: And he was on Stage Crew. He ran the lights for the Spotlight Show.
D: It was a talent show. And lo-and-behold, here was your mother dressed like a hobo—with a broom. The gag was you were trying to sweep the spotlight to make it smaller and smaller, and then at the end you’d grab a hammer and “nail” it down to the stage. I guess it was a silent bit with music playing…
Mom, I can’t imagine this. You’re so shy.
D: She’s the shyest person I’ve ever met.
M: I have no idea how I did that.
D: And the point is—I was the guy running the light around the stage while she swept it up.
That’s adorable. So Mom, explain the lipstick mark on the yearbook photo of Dad.
M: He was big man on campus because he was the student body president, and on stage crew, and this and that—so he was all over the campus newsletter. And I cut out all those little pictures of his face.
D: God, how pathetic.
M: Yeah, I was! It was really sad. And I kissed the largest picture…
That means you must have been wearing lipstick!
M: Ninth grade, you could wear lipstick.
So you kept it around for a year…
M: And then, he asked me out.
D: You’re leaving out the thing at the clubhouse. Kids would go down there and buy hot dogs, listen to records, buy Cokes; it was just kind of a hangout for us before we went home. So one day, I was turning around a corner, and I banged into your mother—
M: And I dropped all of my books… and I had his name written all over them. Because, you know, you’d cover your books with brown paper.
And you shamelessly wrote his name all over the front.
D: John O’Connell John O’Connell John O’Connell John O’Connell
D: And I saw it, and I went, Heh heh heh…
M: And then he actually called me on the phone. On my Princess phone!
D: I learned early on that you don’t say, “Would you go out with me?” You say, “If you’re not doing anything on Friday night, maybe we could do something…” and that gives the girl the opportunity to say, “Oh well, I actually am going out with friends… or the football team.”
M: And his brother picked us up and took us to see Operation Petticoat.
Did you put your arm around her, Dad?
D: I did.
M: He did! I have it all written down in my diary.
D: And one of the reasons I found her so “square” was because a monkey came on screen during the movie, and she whispered in my ear, “Gee, I didn’t know my brother was in this movie”… which, actually, is kind of funny.
M: We used to call Ronnie a monkey! He looked just like one.
It must run in the family.
M: And then there was this girl, Doreen Peters, who was madly in love with your father. And he told her that he thought I was too sweet, so in order to show him that I wasn’t so square, I—
D: —cooked up a deal—
M: —with Doreen wherein John would go to her house and she would make up some excuse to call me, and then during the conversation I said “hell” and “damn” so he would think I was cool… And so he decided I was okay, and asked me out again. We wanted to go see The World of Suzie Wong and our mothers said, “Absolutely not!”
It’s about a prostitute.
D: That’s right. And we had no idea. But in those days, if the Empire was playing a movie you’d already seen, you’d go to the El Rey.
M: And then he wanted to walk me home past Sigmund Stern Grove!
D: I thought we could sit in the park and make out for a few minutes.
M: I’d never made out in my life!
Didn’t you two run into Grandma somewhere?
M: Oh! Why were we at Stonestown? You could get a big slice of pizza for 19 cents. And your dad had his arm around me—
So you two were kind of a thing.
D: Kind of, yeah. You’d go there with friends.
M: My mother was there shopping, and she saw us with his arm around me, and she called me a slut. I never ever forgot that, it hurt me so much.
D: But you told her about it years later—
M: —and she denied it! And then she said if she’d known then that she would have had to wait twenty more years for her granddaughter, she wouldn’t have said that!
So how did things end in junior high school?
M: He was in high school and I was still in junior high…
D: I was moving on… and I got involved with another girl who I ended up dating for five years.
M: We went to rival high schools. He was the yell leader so I’d see him at football games, but by that time I was in love with Steve Pike.
When was the next time you saw each other?
D: It was the fall of 1971. We were 25. My ex-wife Penny and I had come back to San Francisco after living all over the states doing theatre productions, and I was working as a house manager at this theatre on Montgomery Street. As I’m standing there tearing tickets for this play, here comes Curly Head, and she looks at me, and she goes, “Oh—you’re John O’Connell,” and I said, “Whoa, you’re Jill Foreman.” And then she says to me, “Gee, I thought you were going to be an actor.” And I said, “I am an actor—I’m just doing this now, you know!” So after the play, I kind of hung around—God, I have never thought of this until right now—I hung around because I wanted to talk to her, but she wasn’t there after the show! And I had the feeling she was avoiding me.
M: I honestly don’t remember.
D: You don’t remember seeing me at the theatre?
M: It’s really vague.
This obviously wasn’t very important to her.
D: Obviously not! To me it was a big deal!
M: I had moved on!
D: About two months later, Penny and I were sitting at a card table in front of the Cannery—
D: Telling fortunes! I wish we were—I could have made more money. No, I made these little sculptures of Dickensian characters and I was trying to sell them for $7 apiece—I think this one guy actually tried to talk me down; I literally spent 60 hours working on each one of these—and once again, Old Curly Top comes along and says, “Oh, so you’re… doing… little… sculpture things?” And I was like, “Um, yeah, yeah! I’m also auditioning, but yeah, I make these!”
Oh my god, Mom.
D: And then, as your mother walked away, I turned to Penny, and said, “You know, I think I married you because you reminded me of her!”
Oh my god, Dad!
D: Aw, but Penny was cool.
M: She probably doesn’t remember it.
D: I’m the only guy who remembers anything!
And then you didn’t see each other for a long time. But did you think about each other?
D: Oh sure, I thought about her.
M: Sure, I thought about old boyfriends sometimes…
D: I was on a list! One of a list!
But when you did see each other…
D: I was 35 and living in Los Angeles, but I was up in San Francisco visiting my parents for Thanksgiving. I went for a jog around Lake Merced and this woman ran past me, and I thought, “That’s Jill Foreman’s sister! Shoot, I’ll have to talk to her when I run past her again.” Well, I ran the whole three or four miles, and I did not see her—
M: She ran home to go to the bathroom!
D: —and I was just rounding the final corner when I saw her, finally, again, and I started shouting, “Hey! Hey!” and of course she started to back away like I was a creep—I mean, if I had had my badge, I would have showed it to her—but I said, “It’s okay, I’m John O’Connell, do you remember me? My brother went to school with you.” And she remembered me, and ended up giving me your mother’s phone number… so I called and set up a date with her for Saturday.
Mom, weren’t you surprised to hear from him?
M: Of course!
Your sister didn’t call you before hand?
D: I bet she did.
M: So Emily and Michael were coming over for dessert and coffee—you can imagine how well that went over with your father—so I told him I was having some friends over, and he said, “That’s fine.” Then on Saturday, Emily called to tell me that she wasn’t feeling well, and they weren’t coming. At that point, I was terrified, because he was coming over and I hadn’t seen him in ten years! Anyway, I had this sweater… (Dad starts hysterically laughing) I bought it at a knitting store. It was cropped and it had a plunging neckline, and I turned it around and wore it so it went down in the back instead of the front! I mean, this actor guy was coming over! So he came bounding up the stairs wearing brown cords, brown nerdy shoes, a brown turtleneck and a brown tweed sportcoat.
D: I was the coolest guy on the block.
M: And he looked just like John O’Connell!
D: Did I have a mustache?
M: No, not then. Of course, I was a nervous wreck. So I asked if he wanted anything to drink, and of course I didn’t have anything to drink, other than amaretto and Kahlúa for my baking…
D: I think I actually drank some of the amaretto and thought what the hell is this?
M: None of my friends drank! We’re all Jews! So we went to the Noe Valley bar on 24th Street and I had two amaretto coffees and I got completely blitzed.
D: And I was smoking, wasn’t I? Did I try to smoke in your apartment?
M: I made you go out on the balcony.
She wasn’t very hospitable, was she?
D: Not really! Now that I think about it, what the hell was I thinking?
What happened after the two amaretto coffees?
M: None of your business.
D: We will not tell you. I’ve always heard school teachers were very difficult to—
You had a girlfriend in LA.
M: She was picking him up at the airport.
D: I was good for four years or twelve thousand miles.
M: He called me all the time.
D: And thought about her all the time.
M: And he wrote me letters.
D: And I took her out again at Christmas time. My mother was really getting sick then so I was in SF every two or three weeks.
M: And on Valentine’s Day I made you a box of truffles.
D: I had never even seen such a thing.
M: They were the size of golf balls.
You didn’t know what a truffle was, Dad?
M: He didn’t have a bagel until he was 25! He’s a goy! When we got together, he didn’t even know I could cook.
And then you broke up with the other girlfriend and asked Mom to move to LA.
M: When I told my mother I was moving to Los Angeles, she literally got up and kissed the waiter.
Mom, how did you feel about leaving San Francisco?
M: I was terrified. I knew no one in LA except some of my relatives. And I didn’t make any friends until I had you, and then I met their parents. I didn’t know how to get around LA; it was so big. We had a lot of fights about him wanting to go out with his friends and leaving me home alone.
D: I can’t believe I did that.
What made you decide that he was worth uprooting your life, Mom?
M: He seemed very trusting and responsible and loyal.
D: But I was not interested in having kids. When we got together I told her that—but she said—
M: I said every man says that!
D: No, you said, “It doesn’t matter. I just want to be with you.”
M: I said that?! What was I drinking?
D: And, when we were driving down from San Francisco with a U-haul truck with everything she’d ever had to Neverland where she didn’t know anybody, we stopped on the way down in San Luis Obispo at this little bed and breakfast—
M: In San Luis Obispo.
D: I just said that! And that night in the room, she said, “You’re the nicest man I’ve ever known,” and she said, “I hope I die before you do.”
M: I said that?! Well it ain’t happenin’ with the way you’re going.
Dad, what made you decide to commit to Mom?
D: She’s a real sweet person, she’s got a great sense of humor—sometimes. I also thought, God, she seems so unhappy so much of the time, but she doesn’t need to be so unhappy, she could be with me! (Laughs at himself) I wanted to make her happy, and I thought she’d make me real happy.
M: And have I?