Preview EVENT 51/2: “I Love Lucy,” an Essay by Sandy Pool

I Love Lucy

I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as her hidden angers. —Audre Lorde

I don’t know how to tell a joke. I never tell jokes. I can tell stories that happened to me… anecdotes. But never a joke.
—Lucile Ball

Job Switching

In this scene, my mother stands facing an assembly line. She is wearing a chef’s hat so big it looks like a soufflé collapsed on her head. I am standing beside her, and in between us towers a pin-straight woman, my mother’s mother. ‘All right girls,’ my mother’s mother says in a heavy Dutch accent, ‘now this is your last chance. If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, YOU’RE FIRED.’ ‘Yes, ma’am,’ my mother says, and I nod enthusiastically. ‘LET ’ER ROOLLLLLL,’ my mother’s mother belts into another room. The assembly line doesn’t start, and my mother’s mother looks around, furious and embarrassed. She tries again in a more militaristic tone: ‘LET ’ER ROLLLLLLLL,’ and the whole apparatus starts to move. My mother’s mother leaves the room. 

I look to my mother, so I know what to do. At first the conveyor belt moves very slowly, and we both manage to wrap our chocolates. My mother is wrapping her chocolates and leaving every other chocolate, so I have something to wrap too. Soon though, the conveyor speeds up. 

My mother panics immediately. I watch as my mother starts shoving chocolates in her mouth, as if to hide them. She knows she is out of her depth, but there is nothing she can do now. 

It is embarrassing to watch my mother struggle this way and even more embarrassing that I am struggling with her. I put two chocolates in my mouth and gag on them. Soon both of us are shoving chocolate wherever we can: down our bras, into our soufflé hats. We cannot let my mother’s mother see us in this state. ‘Listen,’ my mother says. ‘I think we’re fighting a losing game.’

We are stuffed with sweets to twice our size when suddenly the conveyor belt jerks to a stop and my mother’s mother marches back in. My mother flashes a panicked chipmunk smile.

‘Ahhhh,’ my mother’s mother says, ‘you are doing splendidly. Speed it up, Al!

Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined

Here comes the joke: My mother’s mother calls the shots, and my mother scrambles to please her. My mother’s mother barks orders, and my

mother salutes. My mother’s mother makes royal proclamations, and

my mother holds the scroll. Everyone loves my mother’s mother. Every- one fears my mother’s mother. My mother’s mother is very witty. My mother’s mother barks at my mother. My mother panics. My mother barks at me. I panic. Everyone loves my mother. My mother is very witty. The laugh track rolls maniacally. 

Lucy Tells the Truth 

The truth is that my mother did not have a nice mother. It was a family show, but it was not a comedy. My mother’s mother shoved my mother into scratchy dresses. My mother’s mother said judgmental and unkind things. My mother’s mother told my mother, ‘You are not very smart.’ My mother’s mother told my mother, ‘I am going to pinch you, but only in places where bruises won’t show.’ 

My mother’s mother berated my mother in front of her father, in front of her brothers, in front of her neighbours, in front of her children. When I was 16, my mother’s mother suddenly proclaimed my high-school boyfriend was a piece of garbage. When I told my mother what happened, my mother called her mother and demanded an apology. We lived 10 minutes away, but my mother’s mother didn’t speak to us for five years. 

We used to see my mother’s mother downtown. My mother’s mother glared at us in lines at the post office. My mother’s mother glared at us in lines at the drugstore. My mother’s mother glared at us in lines at the Valu-Mart. I could not understand how such a small thing could undo our entire family. To everyone except my family, my mother’s mother was still as funny and charming as Lucille Ball. 

My mother’s father died calling out for my mother, but my mother’s mother did not call my mother to let her know. When we showed up for the funeral, my mother’s mother did not act as if she hadn’t spoken to us for five years. She acted like she was all caught up.

This was not easy for my mother. She went to therapy. She did therapeutic exercises. One day she threw a dozen eggs at a blown-up picture of my mother’s mother she set up in the backyard. 

By the time I was 16, my mother had also become sick. She took a lot of pills, many of which I could not pronounce. One night she drank a lot too, and ended up naked and screaming at us from inside a closet. Then she took the car over to the parking lot of the hockey arena, and we all took turns getting in the car with her, where she said, ‘You are a horrible, awful slut and I hope you fry.’ ‘You are an ungrateful little cretin and I stood up for you and look where it got me? Nowhere. Totally nothing.’ The next day she remembered none of the things she said. There were no apologies. My father was there too, but he never thought to stop her. 

My mother tried her best. And I tried my best. Probably my mother’s mother tried her best too. My mother’s best was never good enough for my mother’s mother, and my best was never good enough either. It was not a very good show, or a very interesting show. The jokes were stale by then, but they were comforting. 

The Charm School 

The punchline was that my mother was a covert narcissist, but didn’t know it. The punchline involved both intentional violence and violence by mishaps, often resulting from the inept use of props. The punchline was that my mother was my friend. The punchline was that my mother was my enemy. The punchline was that I was a reflection of my mother. The punchline was still very funny. The real punchline was that my mother was a Punch and Judy bully. Her sight gags were impeccable— the double take, the collide, the fall, the faint, the roar. Her silent jabs could sink ships, superglue lips. She could cook a roast and roast you at the same time—sirloin, tenderloin, T-bone, rump, pot-roast, chuck-roast, oxtail, stump. The real punchline was something about vaudeville, but my mother was not a funny man or a buffoon. The real punch- line was that her narcissistic injury came from her mother, but I didn’t know it. The magic show was only for family. There was no one to warn me about the punchline that was coming. 

My mother was a master of uninhibited action. All smoke, all mirrors. She could make you doubt the colour of blouse you were wearing. She could make you feel like a piece of garbage. She could make you feel like the most selfish person in the world. The real punchline was that the routine was not only pre-set but started before I was born. Everyone still laughed at my mother’s punchlines. They were afraid not to. 

Lucy Does the Tango 

In this scene, my mother and I are stuffing our shirts and bras full of eggs. This is not the start of the scene. The premise of the scene is that my mother and I have been trying to raise hens for eggs together, but our hens won’t lay eggs. My mother and I decide to buy eggs from the store, and now we are stuffing the eggs down our shirts to take them outside and deposit the store-bought eggs under the hens. As usual, our scheme is overcomplicated, but neither of us have any better ideas. 

My mother and I are just about to head out when Ricky unexpectedly appears at the top of the stairs. Ricky has very bad timing, or perfect timing. Ricky says he booked himself on a later train because he wants to rehearse a tango number with my mother. Ricky says, ‘Now come on. I haven’t got much time. It’s either now or never.’ My mother shoots me a look. ‘Let’s make it never?’ As a person, my mother wants to avoid playing this gag, but as an actor she knows better. As an actor, my mother knows the gag only works when drawn out to its completely inevitable conclusion. I try to leave the scene, but Ricky says, ‘Now, Ethel, wait a minute. Stick around. I want ya to see what, you know, tell us what it looks like.’ I want to tell Ricky to stop the scene. I want to tell Ricky I al- ready know the ending. My mother tries to get away too, but Ricky won’t let her go. ‘Come on,’ Ricky says, ‘I wanna do the finish.’ ‘The finish?’ my mother asks, as if she doesn’t know what that looks like. Ricky spins my egg-swollen mother out with a tight flick of the wrist. My mother flinches preemptively. 

We all know the finish. The finish is about failure—that old bedraggled number. The finish is about the failure we know is coming, and how funny that failure is when it arrives. The finish requires my mother to stand in a puddle of her failure like a thousand broken eggs for a full 65 seconds, while the studio audience laughs. The finish is me watch- ing my mother with a shirt full of unbroken, unfertilized eggs, waiting for my turn. The finish is timing. The finish is Ricky, the enabler, after a long pause, saying, ‘Now, Lucy, I know this is a ridiculous question, but what are you doing with eggs under your shirt?’ and Lucy, with a straight face, answering, ‘Trying to hatch them?’ 

illustration of three women in chefs outfits touching chocolates on a conveyor belt
Illustration by Nora Kelly

Lucy and the Dummy 

The truth is that Lucy did not have an easy childhood, and I did not have an easy childhood. Our mothers were not capable of the kind of love we wanted. Our mothers could not meet our needs. We could not see these patterns clearly, but we felt them. In this way, our onscreen chemistry is undeniable. We work together like stunt doubles, or best friends. When my mother flinches, I flinch. 

Lucy Gets into Pictures 

Scene: I am seven years old. My sister and I tiptoe around the house because my mother is sleeping. We are all afraid to wake her in case she wakes up furious about the laundry or the dishes or the weather. Instead, we watch 10 episodes of I Love Lucy on VHS tapes, because we are also afraid to change the channel. 

Scene: I am 11 years old. I am sobbing in the bathroom and blood is dripping down my legs. I wad up toilet paper and shove it in my under- wear, hoping it will stop. Later, my mother finds a bloody pair of under- wear in the laundry. She slaps me across the face and sends me upstairs to learn how to use a tampon, alone. 

Scene: I have been scratching myself and have developed a disordered relationship with food. My mother comes in and sees the scratches. She asks what people will think of her if they see me like this. She slaps me so hard I hit my head on the floor. We never discuss it again. 

Scene: I am 20, and my mother is angry. She accuses my boyfriend of kicking her dog. My boyfriend did not kick her dog, and I try to explain the dog was humping his leg. My mother is not angry at my boyfriend. My mother is angry at me for not calling home enough. My mother says if we don’t apologize for kicking her dog, we are no longer welcome in her home. My mother does not speak to me for a year. When I return home, my mother acts as if she is all caught up. Lucy has no ’splainin’ to do. 

Scene: I am 38 years old sitting beside her in the hospice. ‘You know,’ my mother says, ‘I never understood you.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ I say. ‘Do you feel like you gave birth to an alien?’ ‘Not when you were little,’ she says. ‘You really were so very, very sweet.’ 

Lucy Raises Tulips 

It can be hard to love a narcissistic mother. But my mother and I love our narcissistic mothers more than anything. We bring our mothers roses. We bring our mothers tulips. What else is there to do? Our mothers are the centre of our universe. And what is a solar system without a sun? Our narcissistic mothers need us, and we need them. When we finally stand up to our narcissistic mothers, we are slapped so hard we see entire constellations. We won’t do that again. 

Lucy and Harpo Marx 

In this scene, Lucy is dressed like Harpo Marx, and I am also dressed like Harpo Marx. Our goal is to reproduce the mirror scene from Duck Soup, which was originally performed in 1933. We have been rehearsing this scene for years, but I am still nervous. I am supposed to hide behind a door, and then pop out wearing my crumpled top hat and curly orange wig. As an actor, I know the goal is to play this scene perfectly—to be an exact mirror for Lucy, who is also wearing a top hat and a curly orange wig.

When we step out from either side of the door, the resemblance is uncanny: the same goofy expressions, the same sidelong glances. When Lucy raises her arms, my arms move as if guided by an unseen force. My legs kick out with the grace of a synchronized swimmer. Like any method actor, I attempt to differentiate the art of experiencing with the art of representation, but it is difficult to know exactly where the edges are. 

I dive back behind the door. This, too, is scripted. In the distance, I can hear the audience laughing and I imagine my mother on the other side, hamming it up for the cameras: poking out her bottom lip, widening her eyes, and lifting her arms in a gesture of fake confusion. 

When we step out again, my mother is suddenly less focused. She moves less deliberately and begins lifting her limbs in unpredictable ways. I try to keep up, but her gestures are manic. We call cut several times. I am so rattled that I honk my horn with the wrong hand. I begin to worry about Lucy as a person, but it is too late. Lucy has already decided what kind of scene this will be.

The truth is I cannot be Lucy and Lucy cannot be Lucy either. Lucy can- not be my real mother, Lucy Pool, or my fake mother Lucille Ball, or my fake mother Lucy Ricardo. I cannot be the fake Ethel Mertz or the fake Vivian Vance or the real Vivian Roberta Jones or the real me, Sandy Pool. This essay is not about my fake mother Lucille Ball or my fake mother Lucy Ricardo. This essay is about slapstick, and the sight gags we use to mediate the pain of not being able to be ourselves. 

Lucy Is Envious

Online, I find a cocktail recipe for narcissistic mothers. The internet recommends mixing 1 oz guilt, 1 oz shame, 1 oz blame and 1 oz envy. The internet quips we should garnish with rage, then splash the drink in our own faces. But narcissistic mothers are no joke. When my mother dies, I find no jokes in her notebook. I find only a single poem scrawled on a nuclear-orange scrap of paper: ‘I’ve reached the October of my life/the leaves scattered out/across the ground.’ I did not want my mother to be a poet. I wanted her to be a self that was also at my service. I did not want her orange sickness, her orange suffering, her orange vulnerability. I did not want to feel responsible for bringing on the deadness in her.

When I Love Lucy was cancelled, Lucille Ball also tried acting in a variety of spin-offs: The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life with Lucy. Lucy was all the public ever wanted from Lucille Ball. And then one day, they wouldn’t buy her as Lucy either. That was the real tragedy of her life. 

The truth of my life is that I loved my mother, Lucy Pool. I never wanted my mother to die, simply so I could live.

Lucy Hates to Leave

Any decent vaudevillian will tell you the mirror bit is built on impossibility. Even the best mirror bits are a second or two out of sync. My mother could not be the real Lucy Pool, or my fake mother Lucy Ricardo, because she was too busy trying to be the perfect mirror. For a while the illusion was convincing, but not forever. 

When my mother’s mirror bit flopped, my mother’s mother was furious. She gaslit, she guilt-tripped, she played victim, she flipped the script. My mother’s performance was never good enough for my mother’s mother. My mother did not know failure was built into the performance, and started before she was born. The truth is I wanted to please my mother, but the mirror bit is built on impossibility. Even the best mirror bits are a second or two out of sync. I could not be the real Sandy Pool because I was too busy trying to be the perfect mirror.

For a while the illusion was convincing, but not forever. When my mirror bit flopped, my mother was furious. She gaslit, she guilt-tripped, she played victim, she flipped the script. My performance was never good enough, but it was still comforting. 

When my mother died, my therapist said I would feel grief, and I do. 

She said I would feel relief, and I do. This does not mean I did not love my mother. 

Lucy and the Loving Cup 

After my mother died, my sister said my mother wanted to give me a cup. The cup was in a box somewhere in the basement. My mother had looked for hours and hours, but she could not find the cup. I had bought her the cup in 1994 from a garage sale. The cup said, ‘Welcome to 40. It’s all downhill from here!’ The cup had a picture of a man sliding down a bumpy mountain. My mother kept the cup for 26 years to give me on my 40th birthday. But she died when I was 38. When I think of the cup, I feel like crying. It was her idea of a joke, of course, but by then the punchline was missing. 

Lucy’s Showbiz Swan Song 

Through the magic of film, I stand facing my mother again. In this scene, my mother is dressed to the nines in a powder-blue organza swing dress and her trademark swoop of ebony hair. Under the studio lights, her eyes shine dark and wet. She extends her arm to me in a dramatic sweep that only looks natural on television—my cue.

My mother’s legato fills the studio and I instinctively start to sway: ‘That’s life (that’s life) I tell ya, I can’t deny it. I thought of quitting baby but my heart ain’t gonna buy it…’

 Lucy swings me around the room, my blue eyes blinking back at her.She leads with the grace of a woman who is both a winner and a stru gler—a consummate performer who knows that to laugh is to identify, and to identify is to know the boundaries of our bodies. We dance for hours before the outro: ‘But if there’s nothing shaking come this here July…’

Lucy knows what the audience wants is a story with a beginning, a mid- dle and a finish. My mother turns me out with a quick flick of the wrist.

‘I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball…’ 

For once, we do the finish. The finish is flawless. 

The finish is heaven you see, because I finally love Lucy, yes, I love Lucy and Lucy loves me.

SANDY POOL (she/they) is an essayist, poet and professor of creative writing. Her first collection of poetry, Exploding Into Night, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. Her second, Undark: An Oratorio, was nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for Poetry, among others. Selections from her upcoming third book, If Body: Freedom, are in The Walrus.

Art from this issue comes from Nora Kelly.