You’ve probably never heard of Jill Lloyd.
But for two decades, she was the woman behind many of Orange County’s headline-grabbing moments. Remember the cattle drive of 1994, when 150 cows charged down Fairview Road in Costa Mesa? That was her idea. She also gave us the janitor who rode the Ferris wheel at the Orange County Fair — for 38 days straight. And the professor who played a clarinet — while covered in 200,000 bees.
As the former director of media for the Orange County Fair, she had a knack for finding fascinating characters and sharing their quirky stories. But Lloyd is a story in herself. A crazy story. Crazy as any carnival headline.
Lloyd was in kindergarten when her dad told her and her siblings one night that they would hence forth be a family of four. Mom’s not coming home. There would be no more discussion.
Lloyd ran into her parents’ bedroom. Everything of her mother’s was gone. Her clothes. Gone. Her perfume bottles on the vanity. Gone. Even photos of her had vanished.
“It was horrible,” she says.
But every time she began to cry, her father ordered her to her room. Tom Lloyd was a World War II and Korean War Army veteran, a career officer who would one day reach the rank of colonel. He ran the house in military fashion.
Lloyd began sitting on her front porch and waiting for her mom to come home.
When she was 8, her father married another woman and told his children to call her “Mom.”
“I wouldn’t do it,” Lloyd says.
She also rejected attempts to involve her in activities, except 4-H. So when she was 9, her dad bought her two rabbits: Bonnie and Claudia.
Then he went off to Vietnam. By the time he returned a year later, there were dozens of rabbits all over the backyard. Claudia was renamed Clyde. The rest, though, had to go, dad told her.
She ran to her room and hid her head under a pillow while her father butchered all but a few rabbits she planned to show at the fair that summer. He fried them for dinner that night. Lloyd ran to her neighbor Gayle Cory, a fellow 4-H pal who was the wise old age of 11.
“Your dad’s right,” Cory told her. “These aren’t pets. It’s about letting go.”
One day in junior high, Lloyd was sitting on the gym floor, filling out an emergency contact card, when she noticed a girl sitting next to her had written down her old address.
“Oh, my gosh, you live in my old house! Has anyone come looking for me?” she asked.
“Like who?” the girl replied.
“My mom,” Lloyd said. “I haven’t seen her since I was 5.”
When Lloyd was 13, her Pappy (her mother’s step-father) took her to Shakey’s Pizza. He ordered a pitcher of beer. And he poured her one. Then he got right to the point.
“You’re mother is dead. I can’t stand to watch you suffer anymore.”
Her parents were devout Christian Scientists, a religion that eschews doctors, believing that prayer heals sickness and death is an illusion. Pappy told her that her mom had died of cancer. Being so young, she didn’t recall her mom seeming sick.
“Don’t tell your dad I’m telling you,” Pappy told her. He didn’t even know where she was buried.
“We were both crying,” she recalls. When Lloyd got home she phoned Cory.
“When I get my driver’s license, we’re gonna go look for your mom,” Cory promised. “We’ll go to every cemetery in Southern California.”
And they did. When they weren’t raising cattle or sheep to show at the Orange County Fair (she had made peace that her animals would wind up someone’s meal) they would go grave hunting. One afternoon in 1974, when Lloyd was 17, they climbed into Cory’s station wagon and rolled up to what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Lloyd walked into the office with her standard line: Hi, my name’s Jill. But before she could get out that she was looking for her mom, the man told her they had been waiting for her and hustled the two girls into a chapel packed with people.
Scanning the room she saw Sonny Bono. Then Carol Burnett. Cory couldn’t stop giggling. Then the service began. It was for Mama Cass Elliot. They must have been waiting for another Jill. She couldn’t believe her luck.
“My theme song throughout my life was ‘Make Your Own Kind of Music’ [sung by Mama Cass],” Lloyd says.
So there was that. But also it was her first funeral, and she was enthralled.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is beautiful!’ I needed to be there. It was the funeral I never had for my mom. It was powerful for me.”
A week later she opened the Yellow Pages, and there was an ad for Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana. It seemed like a sign. It even began with the word “fair,” which is where she was by then, working part time in livestock. She and Cory entered the office and this time, after four years of searching, she heard the words: Yes, Gloria Lloyd is here in the mausoleum.
“I totally freaked out,” she recalls. “I was jumping up and down.”
So she was disappointed when after finally seeing her mom’s name etched on a metal plate, she still felt empty. “I really wanted to pick up the phone and call my dad and go, ‘Come on, really?’ ”
She kept her discovery a secret. After high school she enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, graduating with a degree in communications. An internship promoting the Orange County Fair led to a job. Then, in 1983, her older sister Ginny died of melanoma at the age of 27. Once again, the family didn’t want to talk about it.
“I started to do weird things,” Lloyd says.
Specifically, she began buying bottles of shampoo. Dozens of bottles of shampoo.
Sitting in the dentist office one day, she saw a hospice brochure. It talked about bereavement. She called the number.
“I lost my sister,” she told the woman who answered. “I don’t know if I’m losing my mind, but I don’t feel right.”
The hospice sent a volunteer to visit her.
“She started talking about grief. That there are no rules for grief. That was the first time I think I really felt human,” Lloyd says. “I was exhilarated.”
A few months later, the Orange County Fair hired Lloyd, by then a single mother of a toddler, to be the director of communications. She also began training to become a hospice volunteer herself.
The AIDS epidemic was blowing up. A Laguna Beach facility was desperate for volunteers. One of her favorite patients was a guy named Bob who had giant blisters on his feet and bitterness in his heart. His family was keeping his illness, his truth, a secret.
“I could relate to that,” she says.
Just before he died, he asked her to take him to see “Thelma & Louise.”
After the movie, she drove him back and forth between Fashion Island and Laguna Beach, about 20 times, while the sun set over the ocean.
“I felt alive when I was with him, even though he was dying,” she says.
Lloyd began spending more time with hospice patients when she wasn’t busy promoting the fair, and later the Orange County Market Place.
“[Work] was a creative platform and it fed that side of me,” she says. “But I felt like there was something missing. I was still searching for something.”
In 2015, at the age of 58, she walked into the Cypress College mortuary science department.
“What do you think of an old lady like me getting into the funeral business,” she asked.
She wound up enrolling at North Orange County Community College to get a certificate in funeral services. There she learned about another certificate — for something called “a celebrant.” It’s a person who is hired, usually by a family, to write and deliver their loved one’s eulogy.
“That’s me!” she thought. “I was so frickin’ excited, I couldn’t stand it.”
After class, Lloyd called Cory to announce she was going to become a celebrant.
You’re gonna be celibate?
No, a celebrant!
Lloyd explained that from now on, instead of sharing stories of the living, she would be sharing stories of those who had passed.
“This is what you were meant to do,” Cory told her.
A few months later, Cory called with bad news. She had pancreatic cancer and a few months to live. It just so happened that earlier that week California had signed into law the End of Life Option Act.
“Will you walk that walk with me,” she asked.
Lloyd drove down to Cory’s home in Vista on a Thursday night for a final slumber party. They ate pizza and those pink and white frosted Mother’s Animal Circus Cookies (“that was our thing”) and drank wine and reminisced.
“The stuff she remembered was the goofy stuff, the times we laughed so hard,” Lloyd said. There was only one rule: No crying until morning, after Cory drank the medication and took her final breath.
“It was sad, yet beautiful,” Lloyd says of the farewell. “I just think grief is what brings out our humanness. I was raised in a religion that denies death. But death is the best teacher; it’s such a big part of life. Living is harder sometimes.”
In addition to being a celebrant, Lloyd is now a part-time funeral assistant and service director for Fairhaven, where she found her mother.
“I think she’s been guiding this whole thing,” Lloyd says. “I feel like she’s the wind beneath my wings.”