Previous Post  |  Next Post

Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Oct 22, 2019

MOTHerview with Storyteller Nancy Mahl

by Suzanne Rust

Nancy Mahl

“The story about my mother is one I’d never even thought of as a story, per se, but the process of a Moth workshop taught me that you don’t have to rescue babies out of a burning orphanage to have a story.”

How did you know that this was the Moth story you had to tell?

My congregation Beth Hatikvah, and Fountain Baptist Church, both of Summit, New Jersey, did a joint community project with The Moth. Our rabbi, Hannah Orden, pushed me to participate because she knew I had a great story to tell. But…I told this one instead. The story I thought I’d tell is about meeting my long-lost sister, Elizabeth Rose. But once I really started to think about it, the more it seemed I couldn’t tell it without her, as you sort of need to hear our story from both perspectives to enjoy it fully, and it would be presumptuous to speak for her as she is a great storyteller herself. The story about my mother is one I’d never even thought of as a story, per se, but the process of a Moth workshop taught me that you don’t have to rescue babies out of a burning orphanage to have a story. A simple story about regular people in unusual moments can resonate in a way that bonds the audience and the teller.  

Tell us more about your mother, “Miss Larchmont,” and your relationship with her. 

She became a mother later in life and her perspectives were very much informed by being a member of the “Greatest Generation.” My peers’ parents were younger and more attuned to their own happiness, i.e. willing to leave unhappy marriages, unpleasant jobs, etc. Her own choices involved a lot of self-sacrifice, and hiding her light under a bushel basket for the sake of propriety, security, and what she saw as the best interests of the family as a whole. She was bright, vivacious, and a natural leader, but I mostly experienced her as conformist, conservative, and anxious. When I came out at 18, her reaction was swift and merciless. We attempted to reconnect periodically over the years, but it felt like we had nothing in common. She felt that being gay was a choice, and a wildly disgraceful and self-indulgent one. As we finally got to know each other, I learned her experience of what following one’s heart, as opposed to honoring your obligations, had done to her to her family, and that the life and death repercussions of those choices were still felt generations later. And she found that I was a pretty good daughter, even by her standards, and she embraced the totality of my life.  

Did seeing the New York City through your mother’s eyes give it new meaning? 

My New York was a gritty place. I entered every place through the loading dock and I saw every thing from the cellar or the roof. My experience of the arts was through nightclubs, drag shows, and art galleries and performance spaces run on a shoestring. My mother’s New York was the Waldorf, the Metropolitan Opera, museums and sailing on the Sound. I realized that the more elegant aspects of NYC culture are largely available to all of us. Cheap seats at the opera have the best acoustics...

At one point in your story, you’re on the phone with your mom and she asks you to let her listen to the city. Which sounds do you think are quintessentially New York? 

The clip clop of carriage horses, the guys who materialize at the first drop of rain calling “UMbrella, UMbrella, UMbrella! and the two train motors that squeal out the beginning of “Somewhere” from Westside Story when the subway pulls out of the station.

What did it mean for you to be able to share your story on the Moth stage? I think that it’s such a beautiful tribute. What do you think your mom would have said? 

Public speaking is scarier than sky diving, but I was glad to bring my mom back to NYC for one more night, so to speak. She would’ve corrected my syntax and grammar and asked if I was “really going to wear that?”  

Who are your favorite storytellers and why?

I’m a faithful listener of The Moth. My family has sat in the driveway more than once waiting for a story to finish before we exit the car.

But songwriters are my very favorite storytellers. Joni Mitchell, Carol Lipnik, Leonard Cohen, Dolly Parton, Bobby Gentry. 

Tell me about your work as an elevator mechanic.

I’m retired now, but I loved my job with a passion. I grew up on the Great Plains and feel happiest when I can see lots of sky. Being on top of skyscrapers afforded me my favorite views of NYC, and the sound of the wind whipping around the tops of the buildings drowned out the human racket below. It was a joy and a privilege to eat my dinner on top of the Empire State Building in the middle of the night. And elevator mechanics are all such characters. Every single one has great stories.

Is that giant American flag still hanging at your house? 

My life has changed a lot since then. I live in a different house and the flag is safely stored in a cedar chest for now, but I’ve shown it to my wife, Amy, and stepsons, Jules and Luca, and told them some of its story... 

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Graduates of The Moth workshop from Beth Hatikvah synagogue and Fountain Baptist church have paid it forward through an ongoing volunteer community project called Fountain of Hope Storytelling Workshop. Our first graduates have a public performance Nov 2nd, 2019 at Fountain Baptist Church, and the stories are fantastic! 

Please finish this sentence: Storytelling is important because…. 

Storytelling is more like music than it is like writing. And because it requires a live audience, can provide a group experience of catharsis, and is accessible to anyone who happens to hear it. It’s a great art form for those of us who have music in our hearts we’d like to share, but can’t carry a tune.

Previous Post Next Post