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Harry Buschman

I think it was George Carlin who told the story of a middle-aged housewife who sat down in front of her television set at one o'clock in the afternoon and didn't get up until four. She was "fiction starved," and rain or shine, from one to four, she was buried in the muck and mire of "Her Stories."

Her stories were more compelling to her than the welfare of her own family. She wouldn't answer the phone. She wouldn't open the door for tradesmen. Neither earthquake nor flood could divert her attention from the electronic tales of tragedy and seduction that marched, like a funeral procession, across her black and white twelve inch screen.

Her stories had no beginning and no end -- just as happiness walked in, sorrow was nipping at its heels. The bride and the widow walked hand in hand. Bankruptcy huffed and puffed at the door of the millionaire's mansion, and the virile swain swooned when the doctor said, "There was nothing anyone could do." There were no happy endings and no sad ones either -- in fact there were no endings at all. An ending was unthinkable in the world of Helen Trent -- where would she go from there?

As the cast grew too old for the parts they played, they were "written out" and replaced with fresh faces. Tragic accidents or undiagnosed maladies took them one by one. The housewife grieved but was quickly consoled when the long lost son suddenly appeared, or the cast-off daughter showed up with her love child at the door. Life went on, and on, and on.

Back in radio days, when no one could see, radio stories captured the heart and mind of my mother. They opened doors to imaginary and unseen worlds of crisis where only she could go. They required her full attention and participation. She had to visualize and set the scenes of melancholy herself. From her limited experience she had to conceive the family court and the millionaire's hideaway. The process exhausted her and when I burst in from school at three in the afternoon she was not always happy to see me.

I would not find her, as you might expect, transfixed by the radio. Oh no! She had work to do, and in spite of the drama that spilled from the speaker of the Philco, the cleaning and the washing went on. But the volume was turned up loud enough to be heard over the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine combined. She did these tasks as an automaton might do them, while her heart and soul participated in the trials and tribulations of Stella Dallas. She wasn't much better by four o'clock either, for when her stories were finished for the day, she had to consider their ramifications. What would happen tomorrow? Would the doctor bring good news? Would Angela's husband come back to her?

Reality was slow in returning. Like someone regaining consciousness from a stunning blow to the head. Eventually the presence of her young son, home from school and hungry, reluctantly brought her back into the world of flesh and blood. Why couldn't her life be filled with drama? In her dream world mothers were not required to feed hungry children -- they never washed their husband's work shirts. No! -- they lived on the horns of an unremitting dilemma, delicately balanced between agony and ecstasy.

She would glance at the clock on the wall and the real world would slowly come back into focus -- "Oh, it's you -- Why are you hungry -- what did you have for lunch?"

"I lost my lunch money, Ma, you know these old corduroy pants -- there's holes in both pockets. I ain't et since breakfast." (English was not a required major in the fifth grade.)

She stared at me sensing a more sinister problem. I knew she was suffering from post-soap-opera-syndrome, and I hastened to explain that because of a hole in my pocket I was starving.

"Do think you could maybe fix it?" I asked. I turned them out and showed her the holes -- big enough to put your fist through.

She focused on them and clucked her tongue, "How can you wear your pockets out before your pants -- you don't go around with your hands in your pockets, do you?" Fresh from the drama of her stories she looked on the dark and somber side rather than the problem itself. They were old pants, old corduroy pants. The pants would last forever. The pockets always gave out before the pants did.

It was useless bringing these mundane problems home after school. I learned to save them up until weekends when the soap operas paused for breath. Then my mother could concentrate on my world. By the time the weekend rolled around she was content to accept my old worn out pants for what they were and not as a symbol of impending disaster.

When her stories made the transition from radio to television, most of the magic was lost. Until then she had been her own director and scenic designer. The faces of her tortured heroes and heroines were hers to make up as she pleased. She was not willing to sit idly by with a box of newfangled Pringles and see her stories butchered. By then I had flown the nest and the pockets of my corduroys were now in the hands of my wife -- or perhaps it was the other way around. But as someone who had witnessed the past and present of these afternoon smorgasbord servings of life I came to realize they had changed, they were no longer meant for people like my mother.

Hanky-panky and adultery now ran rampant. Yeast infections were batted from player to player like badminton birds -- people got AIDS, and the good doctors in the emergency room of General Hospital didn't seem able to cure anything. Blonds with bosoms bared now lap danced their way through bedrooms and bars with little thought for tomorrow.

To make up for the deadly security of the present, the ladies of my generation hungered for stronger stuff. Meanwhile, the flag of morality that mother carried so proudly in her day was tattered and torn. My mother would have nothing to do with this new army of degenerates that couldn't wait to get each other in trouble.

She turned to Captain Kangaroo and the mousketeers. Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Soupy Sales took over the time slots that she had fought so proudly for, a generation ago.

©Harry Buschman 1997

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