I remember sitting on the floor not far from the ironing board, where my mother pressed shirts with hissing steam while watching General Hospital, and sometimes As The World Turns. I remember the faces, the close ups, the over-acted drama. I remember getting a little older and acting out half-understood scenes from those soaps, trying to entertain her. I also recall being a freshman in college, the main living room of the dorm populated midday by a mostly African American group of young women watching All My Children and howling at the screen. I would occasionally attend, not to watch the exploits of the characters on the show, but to observe the group theatrics played out by the viewers.
I was never a joiner, never a fan of daytime soaps. Like most people my age, I was an avid watcher of MASH, CHEERS, and various other evening shows. But the daytime craze never reached me. Perhaps it didn’t reach many of us, and it passed into arcane obscurity, and now one by one they are ending altogether. It is the end of an era, several eras perhaps.
My mother used to tell me about listening to scary radio shows while she and her sister cowered under a blanket. We play Podcasts in my home, but that is something different entirely and the content is not meant to inspire fear (although most recent news does so anyway). Garrison Keillor still carries on the radio tradition with Prairie Home Companion, but it a re-created relic of another time, as entertaining as it is.
No, soaps were their own phenomenon, and so is the “reality” television that is replacing them. My mother had her Dick Cavett and other talk shows, but they are not the same animal as what exists today. A distant cousin perhaps, as the Carol Burnett show and Laugh-In were, and Ed Sullivan, Your Show of Shows, and others before them. Soaps were entertainment, a distraction, a narrative based white noise (and very white they were) for individuals home alone (except for the babble of small children). It was the background to my small childhood, and anesthetic for my father when he was briefly unemployed in the recession of the 70’s.
I find myself doing many of the same chores as my mother now, but instead of a soap I put the flat screen on to the Bernie Mac show. It makes me laugh (and I try to find a reason to laugh every morning), and has a sly poignancy about family life that I find dead-on. My children are in school, and no one sits on the floor next to me while I do dishes. I am very much alone these days, and wonder how my mother must have felt. Such a social person, not used to the new cul-de-sac suburbia of the early 1960’s. I remember a few things from those days in the one level, aqua post-war house. I look at photos and recall the objects. I wish she were here to ask about those days, what she remembered, how she felt. I would ask her what she thought of the soaps dying off, and watch a few final episodes with her out of nostalgia. I would make us coffee, and sit next to her chair. But she is not here anymore.
I make my way in the world, feeling time pass. Technology changes, but people don’t. We are still 3-D beings, make of flesh and bone who act on impulses, drives, and desires as well as carefully considered obligations, loyalties, and entertainments. I shake my head this morning, oh we do become our parents! We may run away from it, fashion ourselves lives that on the surface seem so completely different, but we do, we do become them. For better or worse. That phrase should not only be used at weddings, but when one finds out they are pregnant as well. For better or worse- you are a part of this marriage, now this parenting, for the rest of your life (of course I recognize there are alternatives, but for most of us this is the social contract we enter into). Your options have become circumscribed and huge responsibilities conferred, but not without privileges and joys. And in the slow, quiet moments you can give yourself choices, small though they may seem these choices will become the background to your memories and those of your children. I do not recall much about those soaps, but that they were the sound and sights of some consistent time spent with my mother. It’s like catching her singing, or laughing to herself, those intimacies a child gets to see, those fleeting insights into the people we love.
So goes the soaps, so passes time. Farewell to an era, a domestic ritual that has lost any meaning. Farewell.