Tag Archives: mother

My Mother the TV Set

Knowing that it is a strange comparative, between a mother and a television set, there are parallels that cannot go unnoticed. My mother was a modern woman, modern for her thinking more often than her actions, however always open to new ideas and even technologies. She balanced on a beam somewhere in a limbo of mid-generations, teetering between the gravitational pull of her encouraging offspring and her pooh-poohing spouse, constantly in danger of giving too much weight to one or the other. Unlike so many of her peers, she found meaningful uses for vcrs, cordless phones, computers, and larger and larger tv screens – adopting some of these items before her own children did.

One of these modern conveniences appeared soon after my father’s death: a 1993, large-screen (41”), rear-projection television, Sony model KP-41EXR96. In her mind this was the best investment she ever made, and she knew full well that my father would never have allowed such an extravagance. One might argue that it was a necessity of sorts because her eyesight had worsened with age, but she loved movies, and the idea of watching them at home on what was then the largest piece of real estate available to the home-viewer was just the ticket, as well as the price of admission.

Some of us worried that it was an addiction, in a sense. She positioned chairs in front of it, then later beds – her TV room started to resemble an opium den. Any visitors would be lured to the big screen, first, as a kind of demonstration of its beauty, then to watch with her (again) the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. It is incalculable how many times she viewed that movie; alone, with others, maybe again in her dreams. If there had been other cult followers with her, they would have recited the dialogue in unison as a mantra. That TV delivered to her the romantic illusion that she so craved, over and over, and in nearly life-size scale. Not far behind, both of her children, individually, purchased their own rear-projection big screens. To one of us, she would claim that the other one’s selection never lived up to her own; in a kind of Goldilocks moment, she would compare the size or clarity, and the others would fail in every measure. She loved her set.

After her debilitating stroke, life-changing therapy and relocation, I think that one of her major concerns was reuniting with her TV. Along with other belongings, we moved its then eight-year-old hulking carcass nearly six hundred miles, placing it as her hearth in her new smaller living room, and building the room around it. We offered to replace it with a newer, lighter and even bigger set, but she was a one-set woman. In some way the set must have represented many things: a link with her more normal past self; a lingering thumbed-nose to my father; a retained sense of having found the right one – the superior-to-all-others TV, still, at eight years old; and a comfortable and friendly face in her new environment.

The TV set outlived her, and we were faced with what to do with it. At one point, it developed a high-pitched buzz, but otherwise it worked. We had it fixed and took it to our home, along with other belongings of hers – after all, she loved it so. It wasn’t so much that we wanted it as that we felt we had to keep her memory alive with it, it had been such a cherished object. It weighed a ton, and it was so large that most of our rooms couldn’t accommodate it, but it ended up in our bedroom – and it gives one pause to think that either it had developed a mind of its own or she had willed it to be so.

It has been eight years since her death and, now, in the past several months, there are death rattles in the set. First, there was a strange color separation, giving me acid flashbacks, in which every image had an aura – every person, every chair, every single thing in the picture oddly illuminated in tripartite rainbow array. I continued to watch it, learning how to read it, refracted. I think it was challenging me in some way. It made me think of my mother’s stroke and how her “set” was having the same misfiring of its own wiring, sending the wrong signals. And just as suddenly as that affectation appeared, it disappeared, some sort of self-healing of its internal parts. The high-pitched buzz returned, then left as well. Was my mom trying to communicate to me through this contraption?

About the time when we said, well, it’s finally over and we will find a place to recycle it, the picture improved – possibly to a clarity it never before had attained. Why would we consider pulling the plug? But now, as the thing heats up, there is a new kind of light show in which the screen goes black and three wavy lines, red, blue, green, snake around the empty picture field. It reminds us of an EKG for an alien species, and we are waiting for it to flatline. Sometimes during these episodes, almost like seizures, the TV set turns itself off. We wait a few minutes and turn it back on and it has a good picture. Its remote control no longer controls the power in either direction but it still has a working volume and mute. My mom would be tickled about that, since she used both with a vengeance.

So we wait and hope, in a way as with my mother. We can’t end the relationship, so we wait for it to happen naturally. Who knows: Maybe my mom’s spirit is somewhere in that TV set. Maybe she is controlling the volume and picture. I hope so.


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Gone. Not Forgotten

Sometime back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s (which, as everyone knows, was still the ‘60s), a bunch of people got together in a theater to perform a piece of conceptual art. What they did in that theater, up onstage, was to live in it. They just went about their daily lives, 24 hours a day, and, all the while, audience members came and went, watching the “actors” simply live their lives, or as close to that as one can do when one is being observed. Those onstage pretended not to be on view; those watching pretended not to be voyeurs. It was a perfect exemplification of the theatrical fourth wall.

But, more, what this conceptual piece did – besides acting as a precursor of the classic PBS series, “An American Family,” as well as just about every reality-TV show to come, especially “Real World” – was to elevate (if that was the direction) the act of everyday living to a functional definition of art. And, by default, turning each one of those who were living onstage into artists. Art did not imitate life, nor vice versa – they were one and the same.

To extend the argument, aren’t we all, then, practitioners of the art of living? And aren’t the “stages” upon which we “perform” places of art: in design, accoutrement and action? And, therefore, do not each of these places, to one degree or another, have a placeness and, for our purposes here, are discussable in terms of placeness as art?

And, what we have thought about for some time, and which has been brought to bear more intensely recently, is that perhaps the most palpable sense of placeness, and placeness as art, is resident in those places where those who lived there live there no longer, where the overwhelming power of placeness is shaped by the absence of what had once been there and by our memory or imaginings of the people and creatures and objects that once were.

All this, as disputatious prelude, to get us around to the point: that in the past few weeks we have experienced the death of a mother – the last of our parents – and a cat, the last of a litter that was born on our kitchen floor, beginning a mutually loving relationship between four felines and two humans that lasted nearly 19 years.

Their loss has renewed our feeling that among those places most redolent of placeness are those where ones who lived there are gone; that a room we visited – one that once had furniture we sat on and touched, and living beings we communed with and kissed, and smells and sounds and other things we took for granted – now, vacant, seemed somehow more filled with all of that, and with deeper feeling and meaning, importance and urgency: not inhabited by ghosts, but filled with echoes, not seen with a measured eye but apprehended by recollection or by some sixth or seventh sense we have yet to divine.

In our mother’s small apartment, there was a point when she was no longer there but her belongings were, and, truthfully, there was, besides the fact of her physical absence, so little emotion there – just a bunch of dead wood and bought scraps. But, now, those meager items have been removed and, suddenly, somehow, everything is there and, out of the corner of our mind’s eye, so is she – in an odd way, maybe even more insistently so even than when she was really there. (Which begs the question, “What is real?” which will not be answered here, nor any attempt made to do so.)

In our house, in the kitchen, we surrounded the table with cat beds, raised to the level of the tabletop, so that when we ate, our cats ate with us; when we watched TV there, they watched with us – one family, together. Soon, that spot became a central place in our home: no matter where the cats might spend their days, they would find their way to the beds, and us, to be fed, to be rubbed, to nap, each to his or her own favorite bed, or the one that the pecking order assigned each to. When the four became three, there was some shuffling of spots, but mainly it remained the same. When three became two, there was more of a freedom for the survivors to select any bed they wanted, within the parameters of cat power politics. When two became one, every bed was our last cat’s, and she used all of them.

But now, four have become none, and yet … there they all are again, we can see them, in their prime, where they belong, waiting for us: Spike and Luna and J.R. and Chub, in their spots. When there had been even just one cat, it had been a circle of empty beds used by her; with none, they are all occupied by their rightful residents. Strange about placeness: sometimes a complete absence is necessary to experience a complete presence. We felt it and, perhaps, noted it first when we visited the affecting and spectral Springside, in the Hudson Valley. Now, in a parent’s apartment, around our kitchen table, we feel it again. Like an empty stage that still resonates with the energy of the actors that once performed there – all of us, actors on our own stages, in a grand conceptual piece from which the art that then-ness and now-ness and placeness derives and remains.

Where we have been will be, to those who loved us, someplace we will always be, in a way they wish us to be always.

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