What Mom Watched
I lost my mom on April 20, Easter Sunday, three and a half years after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
In her last months and weeks, we watched a lot of TV together. Partly because it was all she was physically able to do, but also because television was one of the central bonds between my mother and me. Sitcoms, dramas, movies, awards shows, daytime talk, late night comedy–we loved it all. We were live-snarking the Oscars before the Internet was even a thing. I was always envious that she grew up during the early days of television and got to experience the Golden Age as it aired. She was a TV kid. I had no choice but to become one myself.
She would tell me about the shows she watched as a girl. She’d race home after school to watch Howdy Doody. She remembered seeing Elvis and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Phil Silvers Show was a favorite. The first fan letter she ever wrote was to Robert Culp. (He never replied.)
Later, after she’d met my dad, they would stay home on Saturday nights to watch The Carol Burnett Show. Mom’s all-time favorite movie was Gone with the Wind, so each time she watched a replay of the classic sketch with Burnett as Scarlett O'Hara wearing her curtain-rod dress (“I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it”), she would laugh just as hard as the first time she saw it.
Mom loved comedy. A quick wit herself, she was an early fan of stand-ups like Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, Paul Reiser, Carol Leifer and David Letterman. Oh, David Letterman. Like me, when Mom had a celebrity crush, she fell hard. She felt she had a kindred spirit in Dave. They were both from the Midwest, they were born just 10 days apart in 1947 (Mom on April 2, Dave on April 12), and they shared the same wry, no-bullshit sense of humor that dared to speak out loud what everyone else was secretly thinking.
She had been a fan of Letterman’s short-lived morning show and stayed up past everyone’s else’s bedtime to watch his original Late Night. On Friday nights, I was allowed to stay up, too, and together we’d laugh as he dropped watermelons off a five-story building, Velcroed himself to walls and shopped for light bulbs at Just Bulbs. (“Could you buy shades here?” “No. Maybe go to a place called Just Shades.”)
After I graduated college and moved away, Letterman became a tradition of my holiday visits home. At Thanksgiving, we’d watch him call his mom to guess what kinds of pies she baked; in December, we never missed Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It’s fitting that Dave announced his retirement just a few weeks before my mom passed away, because for me, the two of them will be forever connected.
A lifelong Chicago girl, my mom was a frequent audience member at The Second City, so watching shows like Saturday Night Live and SCTV was like hanging out with old friends. Other kids were always surprised I was allowed to watch SNL, but for our family it was practically church. After the dormant years of the early ‘80s, I remember my parents embracing the arrival of cast members like Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Up through recent years, my mom would still quote the night watchmen sketch in which Crystal and Guest would detail outlandishly painful, self-imposed scenarios with the punchline, “I hate when that happens.”
Each night after dinner, from kindergarten through high school, we’d sit down together and turn on the TV. “What’s tonight, Tuesday?” my mom would say to herself as we figured out what was on the schedule. She of course loved the '80s NBC classics–The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Hill Street Blues–but she had a broad range of tastes over the years: Kate & Allie, Roseanne, Lonesome Dove, Newhart, Wings, Dream On, Twin Peaks, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm, among many more.
I very clearly remember one weekend morning when we were eating breakfast, and she told us about this hilarious Chris Rock HBO special she’d watched the night before. “We have to see when it’s on again.” It was Rock’s pivotal Bring the Pain show, and by the time it blew up into the mainstream, I felt like I’d been privy to insider intel courtesy of my mom’s early “discovery.”
As she got older, her tastes grew more conservative, often opting for Fox News or real-crime stories on shows like 48 Hours Mystery, Dateline NBC or 20/20. But she was no prude. She was a devoted fan of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, 24, Mad Men and other boundary-pushing shows. Her most recent TV crush was Seth MacFarlane. She was on board with Masters of Sex. At the end of the day, she just liked good TV.
When the cancer started taking its toll, and she was confined to her chair in the family room, she relied on TV to get her through the day. As we cared for her, the same line-up played behind us like clockwork:
9 a.m. Live! with Kelly and Michael (“I’m so glad they picked him. He’s such a nice man and, as they say, easy on the eyes.”)
10 a.m. The View, or let’s see who’s on Rachael Ray
11 a.m. Windy City Live, a local Chicago news/talk show
Noon The Chew (My dad: “This show actually isn’t that bad.”)
1 p.m. Maury
Now here’s where she lost us. Everything up to then was pretty tolerable, enjoyable even, but Maury is truly one of the worst shows on television. Just no nutritional value whatsoever. But Mom was entertained by the spectacle of it. “Can you believe these people?” she’d say. I wondered if there was a little armchair psychology behind this. When you’re in a terrible situation yourself, do you seek out images of people who theoretically have it worse? Sure, I may have cancer, but at least my family’s not like that? Who knows. We soldiered through it because Mom liked it, and that’s all that mattered to us.
2 p.m. Inside Edition
2:30 p.m. Jeopardy!, a daily staple in our house for as long as I can remember. Often enjoyed on DVR in the evening with a martini in hand.
3 p.m. Dr. Phil, unless Ellen had someone she liked
4 p.m. Judge Judy
Oh man, Mom watched her some Judge Judy. “She is such a bitch, I love her,” she would declare with almost every episode. If Maury convinced my mom the world was going to hell in a handbasket, Judge Judy gave her hope there were still people around to whip those losers into shape. If the plaintiffs and defendants had been able to hear my mom’s commentary, their cases would have been the least of their problems. “Look at that hair.” “Oh, nice tattoo.” “Ever hear of an orthodontist?” “Of all the shirts she had in her closet, that’s the one she chose to wear on television.” She and Judy would have really hit it off.
During Mom’s final days, the television in my parents’ living room stayed dark. It was the ultimate indication that our life was about to become very different, because watching television together was such a cornerstone of our family experience. Rather than providing a mindless distraction, it connected us in laughter, tears and memories. I already miss picking up the phone to ask my mom what she thought of that big twist on The Good Wife or whether she’ll be watching the Tonys tonight. (She would be, though she’d rather have Neil Patrick Harris hosting. He’s so talented, isn’t he?)
On the surface, remembering my mom through TV seems trivial. But my mental archive of the shows and jokes and actors and stories we both loved will keep her with me forever. I’ll always be able to conjure up her laugh, her smile, her voice by remembering and rewatching those moments. I miss her every day, but I smile imagining she’s now at the world’s best backstage party, meeting all of her childhood TV heroes–and maybe finally getting that reply from Robert Culp.