by Joseph O’Day
Another Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting with my ninety three year old mother in her parlor watching TV. She’s in a cushioned chair in one corner; I’m to her left on the couch. At the end of the room facing Mom is her wide-screen Toshiba HD television propped atop a Quasar console. She had me buy the Toshiba a few years ago when the Quasar wore out.
We’ve managed to keep my mother at home by hiring caretakers who alternate shifts with my sister, my wife, and me. I learned quickly that this job of caretaking requires lots of sitting and watching: Mom watches TV and me, I watch TV and Mom. I’ve tried to make the time productive by cleaning and tidying up, doing bills, or attempting to read or write, but I get sidelined by the loudness of the TV and by her repeated requests to rise and walk around. Even with a walker, she’s unsteady and at risk for falling, so I’ll assuage her concerns, for example telling her the milk definitely was returned to the refrigerator and promising to check again to make sure. I’ve figured out tricks to get me out of her sight, out of her mind, like staying in another room, but near enough to respond. However, I’d rather she knows she’s not alone, so I’m back on the couch.
There’s an obstacle to my being productive, though, that’s more disruptive than my mother’s demands to get up three times in an hour. It’s not the temptation of the peanut butter crackers on the kitchen counter or Snickers ice cream bars in the fridge, or even my wish to lie back on the soft couch for a nap. Rather, it’s a TV station, the Hallmark Channel, and its afternoon movie romances, with titles like Puppy Love or The Wish List or Recipe For Love, and story lines like “A perfectionist makes a list of qualities she’s looking for in a mate, finds an ideal guy, but is instead drawn to a kooky barista who encourages her to loosen up.” Predictable, sentimental, addictive as hell.
When I mentioned this to a co-worker, he reacted badly—“If I watched Hallmark I’d never admit it”—making me wonder if he might be a closeted Hallmark guy.
In front of guests at a dinner party, I asked another friend if he watched. An ex-Marine, he glared at me and let out a two-tone low-high “Nooooooo!”
My own habit started last summer. I arrived at my mother’s to find that the previous caretaker had left a Hallmark story on. It was about a woman attracted to a brilliant astrophysicist, unaware an aneurysm had caused him to have short-term memory impairment. He’s kind and gentle and one evening directs her attention towards the clear sky, explaining fascinating facts about star constellations and the universe. They’re young, shy, and falling for each other. He conceals his impairment by recording their conversations on an electronic pen for later review and by scattering post-it note reminders around his apartment. His sister warns that if he cares for this woman, he’d better reveal his problem. But he fears he’ll lose her. When she inevitably discovers the notes and recordings, she’s repulsed and breaks up before he can explain. This causes me to jump at the screen; they’re so right for each other!
I realize the story should end well—it’s Hallmark after all—but I want to see them reconcile, to witness their embrace. Problem is, the show has thirty minutes left and it’s Saturday and my wife’s turn to stay with my mother and my turn to get to church for the 5:30 mass. Since it’s ridiculous to miss church for a TV show, I plead with my wife to stay focused and fill me in later. After church, she tells me “yes they got back together” and mentions that there was “also something about brain surgery to correct his memory problem.”
“Did they perform the surgery?” I ask.
“I think so, but I got a call and don’t remember much else.”
Many of the Hallmark stories have a similar path: two people are right for each other but something interferes. In the end, they realize how much they care and their love overcomes all. They’re attractive, often rich, successful … this can get monotonous and boring. I’m usually seduced anyway, but sometimes left with the feeling that I’ve wasted my time.
So I’ve tried to avoid the TV. I’ll mute it—Mom only grasps the visuals anyway—and turn away to read from my iPad or key my laptop or clean the kitchen or tidy up the dining room. But I’ll see the show’s characters reflected on the iPad and laptop screens. Or I’ll take an inadvertent glance at the TV from the kitchen or dining room and wonder what’s going on. I’ll grab the remote, press the info button, and I’m done.
During my teen years, I had a friend at the YMCA, an elderly guy, who’d discuss everything with me. He’d attended law school, was incredibly well-read, loved discussing politics, was a proud liberal, had strongly held opinions. He could be tough with someone espousing anything but harsh reality. I once told him that there’s someone out there, one special companion, for each one of us. He smiled and said “Joe, you’re a romantic and I love you for that.” He may have rubbed my shoulder or given me a hug, as he’d done on occasion, but he was saying I was young and naïve, and would learn in my own time about the harshness of life. He wouldn’t be the one to bring me down to earth.
I’m sitting in my mother’s parlor. The colors of this room, once a vivid mix of white and aqua, have faded since her renovations forty years ago. The wall-to-wall carpet is darker and threadbare in spots; the couch and chair, though well-kept, show wear, their edges frayed. The white paneling that made Mom so proud seems outdated, as does the white drop ceiling with its built-in light. However worn this room may be, the bright color scheme and five windows and cushiony furniture lends a cheerful, cozy ambience.
On top of a white table next to Mom’s chair is a phone, a box of Kleenex, and a framed 3 x 5 photo, circa 1980, of my parents. They sit at a restaurant, shoulder to shoulder, looking up to the photographer, Mom smiling, Dad savoring his meal. When I hand it to her, she rests it on her stomach, holding it with both hands and silently focusing on it. After several minutes, she asks me to return it in place next to her.
Dad and Mom loved watching TV in this parlor, laughing at the shows, discussing the news, cheering the athletes. When Dad died, the TV reminded Mom of these moments. She told me that watching it lessened the loneliness. She took over Dad’s chair until it was replaced by one that assists her up and down and elevates her legs. The corner spot is hers now, and the couch, her old spot, is mine. I turn my head from the TV and catch Mom looking at me. When I match her gaze, her eyes remain undeterred. I don’t know what’s in her mind, but her face is calm, content.
A Hallmark movie is playing: Meet My Mom—“A divorcee falls for a soldier who has become a mentor to her son. They’re hesitant to start a romance in light of the soldier’s upcoming deployment overseas.” My mother is comfortable and seems to be admiring these pretty people and assessing their hair-dos and manner of dress. I’m hoping the divorcee and soldier take a chance and allow themselves to fall in love.
Joseph O’Day obtained his BA and MBA from Salem State University and BS from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He has served as the Director of Pharmacy at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital since 1998. He has taken several graduate writing courses and is a long-standing member of Salem Writers’ Group. His writing focuses on the personal essay form, exploring family relationships and life transitions. Besides pharmacy and writing, he enjoys athletics and spending time with his family.