City Lights: 'Hey, Martha' stories still worth telling

A former editor of mine sometimes referred to what he called a "Hey, Martha" story.

That was his term for a story with an offbeat or amusing twist. In other words, if an old couple were rocking on their front porch while the husband read the paper, he might push his glasses up from the tip of his nose and say, "Hey, Martha? You ought to check out this article..."

I love "Hey, Martha" stories too, but after so many years, I can get blase about them. When you've gotten your 11th phone call about a great-grandmother turning 100 or a man running cross-country to fight muscular dystrophy, the thrill starts to wear off.

The other day, though, my colleague Lauren Williams wrote a story for the Daily Pilot that truly took me for a loop. To call this a "Hey, Martha" story is an understatement. This one is about a woman trying to arrange her own "Hey, Martha" story — provided that Martha is a guest at her funeral.

Here's the opening of Lauren's piece:

"A funeral may be an unlikely place to find inspiration.

But for Anne McCasland, it was an event that became her starting point in a quest to gather unique experiences that, one day, her grandchildren can tell as stories at her own memorial service.

'I don't want a boring funeral,' McCasland said. 'I want them each to have a good grandma story. It's going to be a party, so it's gotta be good.'

The Costa Mesa resident is calling them her 'eulogy stories.' She's planning one for each grandchild."

True to her word, McCasland climbed Half Dome in Yosemite with her grandson on her 70th birthday. Recently, when her granddaughter headed off to begin her freshman year at Louisiana State University, McCasland vowed to ride her bike along the Santa Ana River Trail until she equaled the distance between Costa Mesa and Baton Rouge.

Comedian Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame, allegedly said before his death, "If anyone has a long face at my funeral, I'll never speak to him again."

But until I read Lauren's story, I had never heard of a member of the living taking such pains to dictate her own memorial service.

Would I try to dictate mine? It sounds tempting. If I could sit in the front row in disembodied form, I'd love to listen to recollections of the amazing columns I wrote, the profound advice I gave to reporters, the impossibly clever jokes I told at the office Secret Santa parties.

The thing is, though, funerals — or at least wakes — have their irreverent and unexpected side as well. So I have no doubt that those in attendance, in between tales of my illustrious side, would regale the audience with memories of my horrible Woody Allen impression, my habit of checking my email every two minutes and my inability to throw a baseball within five feet of its intended target.

In short, I want a funeral as rocking as McCasland's. But unlike her, I'll let the guests improvise it. My only goal is to give them enough material to work with.

Maybe, in that regard, I'm like Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones guitarist who wrote a poem about his legacy shortly before his death in 1969: "When this you see, remember me/and bear me in your mind./Let all the world say what they may,/speak of me as you find."

Speak of me as you find, too. Just make sure it entertains Martha.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

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