I had a mean mommy.
My friends had virtually unrestricted, unregulated, non-stop access to the television back then, even to the point where some families would eat dinner with the TV on, suffocating any possibility of conversation under a blanket of blah.
“Did you see Charlie’s Angels last night?” my schoolmates asked, in a clutch of morning chatter as the class was taking shape, and I stood there, utterly clueless, hoping to successfully fake my way through a breathless revisitation of what Jaclyn Smith’s breasts had been up to the night prior, but my father’s advice on how to fake an interest in sports was not particularly effective in the context of media critique.
“Umm…yeah, that was some episode, right?” I said, and the kids went straight to scoff face.
“What was your favorite part?” asked one particularly virulent boy who lived down the dirt road, where the well water always came out ruddy.
“Uh—” I started. “The part with the gun.”
“All the parts have a gun, dork.”
“No, uh, you know, the part with the special gun…umm…that they found…and then they were chasing that guy.”
“Pssht,” hissed the virulent boy. “You were prob’ly reading the Bible all night, dipstick.”
It was a peculiar thing to say, but I think it was informed largely by the fact that the only other kids who were perpetually in the dark about the latest and greatest light entertainment to pour from the screens of the deluxe Mediterranean-style 25-inch-diagonal console sets into paneled, shag-rugged dens of the cooler kids’ suburban split-levels were the kids of the dour Bible-beaters and the neighborhood Mormons, who shockingly preferred a nice evening of family board games to the panoply of seventies jiggle-TV that was the standard primetime fare of my youth.
“Was not. I was reading Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke,” I quipped, pronouncing “rendezvous” as “ren-dez-vus” in a literary repudiation of my attempt at erudition, “which is a very amazing book about a giant spaceship.”
Eyes rolled. I was really not good at the comebacks then.
Damn my mom and her stupid thing about TV.
The group drifted away, snickering at me.
Still, Rendezvous With Rama was a hell of a book for a ten-year-old. Long after the missed potential reward of having seen Farrah Fawcett Majors in a wobbling run, fighting the inertial complexities of running with two unsynchronized and braless breasts and a drawn pistol, faded from mind, I’d lie in bed, drifting off thinking about what it would be like living in a future where a thirty-four mile long spaceship drifted into our solar system unannounced, and if I was going to be forever in the company of the church mice and my Mormon friends in social isolation, I would not be short for stories.
“Can we watch TV?”
I looked at at Little Miss, still rubbing her eyes as I lined up the materials for breakfast and ground a batch of coffee for The Troubadour. Her hair was a mess, more Valley of the Dolls than young princess, but I loved watching her booting up in the morning, when she’d come down to the library, where I sleep on her nights, to stand by the couch there, silently, waiting for me to wake up and usually losing patience and starting to repeatedly whisper my name in wake-up mantra. We are the early risers in the house, and both grasp the gift of those hours just before the sun washes over the world.
“I’m afraid not, hon,” I said, happily ending the dental-tool whine of the grinder. “We occupy a home undiminished by the ghastly presence of a distraction machine.”
“A dist-whaa machine?”
“A distraction machine. Pancakes or French toast?”
“But I want to watch TV.”
She pulled the pout face, and I waited for a moment to see if she’d actually go for arms-akimbo defiance to complete the gesture, but she was countering without much conviction that morning. I added the ingredients to the bowl for pancakes, got a fork from the drawer, and handed everything to Little Miss for sous chef duties. She climbed up on the yellow step stool at the center island, took the fork, and flailed it in the bowl.
“Why can’t we watch TV? Can we watch something on the big screen?” she continued, alluding to the nice projector and pull-down screen in the library where we watch films together.
“We’ve only got an hour to get ready for school, sweet pea, and I suspect a substantial fraction of that is going to be spent in the eternal debate about brushing your hair,” I said, and asked her if I could hold the fork for a moment. “If you hold the bowl like this, and hold the fork this way, it’ll be easier to get the right consistency.” She nodded, and took the fork back, approximating what I’d shown her.
“That means if it’s thick or thin, smooth or lumpy.”
“What’s it for?”
“When the consistency is right, we know the pancakes will come out right.”
“Is this consistency right?”
I peered into the bowl and found it mostly about right. “Looks good. You wanna help me set the table for you, me, and Daddy?”
“I’m going to make napkin swans!”
In truth, her napkin swans were yet in a primordial stage of evolution, but there is something to her enthusiasm for learning such things that just reaches way, way back into my history and makes me smile. I have been telling stories about my father for so long, and I’ve struggled, sometimes, to figure out how to tell the stories in which my mother is the heroine, but in these moments, I think of my mean mommy and how long it was that I thought of her as being an impediment, when what she really was was the gatekeeper to a world in which I was invited in to the joy and wonder of doing instead of just plunked in front of a television set as a default. I never knew how much effort it was to stay engaged, and to somehow shoehorn my own responsibilities in around the whirling chaos of a child for whom the world is unfolding and expanding so swiftly, and it’s an education both in supernatural patience and the reward we get from staying present when it’s so much easier to surrender to distraction.
TV is a great babysitter, in a strictly mercenary sense, but in the words of Andrew Lewis, writing on Metafilter, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
The hair brushed, the pancakes cooked, presented, consumed, the bag lunch prepared and backpack packed, we find an open moment.
“Know what, sweet pea?”
“I think we have just enough time for a game.”
“That might be too involved. How ’bout Uno?”
It’s strange to think I ever got so immersed in the world beyond the edge of youth, where we start dividing everything into chores we hate and escapes we need, still reaching into those voids of distraction and entertainment as tools for conquering the fear of just being right where we are, doing what we’re doing, in the moment and as connected to the indescribable sense of life as a thing that flows through a landscape that’s beyond us as we’re likely to get. Sometimes, it just takes a few subtle moments of mean, when we can decide to pick the channel that feeds a broad, shallow, sluggish stretch where nothing happens or take the route with rocks and pools and unexpected discoveries just around the bend.
“What color are we changing to?” I ask.
Good, I think. I’ve got some green. I’m reminded of my friend Leland, and his family playing board games every night, and what we shared in common.
For a moment, I let worry cross my brow, and ponder the chores of the day, and drift away, but I play my card and let it go.
The cold never bothered me anyway.
© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall