Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m an Appalachian woman, born and bred. I grew up in West Virginia (in a middle class, blue-collar, working-class family). My parents were not college educated but knew they wanted their children to be and stressed achievement and work-ethic to all of their children, always. I write frequently about my growing-up years as (for many years) the only daughter in this very gendered family. My stories recall my relationship with my parents and my brothers, with our values (as echoed in our play), and with the town and community we inhabited.
Currently, I am an English instructor at The Ohio State University, having drifted one state away in my career. I find I frequently tell my students in the classroom that my dad and his strong devotion to work (both his physical strength and his mental energy) have provided the inspiration of my life. He read Aesop’s Fables to my two brothers and to me from books he owned or checked out from our local library, never sacrificing the cerebral for the physical. The story I am submitting, “I Heart TV,” recalls his constant work and the glory of free time on a typical evening. By remembering the television programs and unity and repetitiveness of watching television as a family, the story considers the economic place of those providing the fundamental and necessary work that enables a family and a nation.
I Heart TV
I am glad for television, delighted to own two of them, thrilled when the day is coming to a close and I can occupy my oversized recliner, put my feet up, balance a dish of ice cream on the enormous arm rest, and tune in to something, almost anything will do.
I know TV is criticized for the decline of civilization, for pulling us away from study and books and conversation, from relationships and higher pursuits. But television anchored my family to one room when I was a child. We were all there: my parents, my brothers, and years later my baby sister strapped in a stroller. Dad occupied the room’s only recliner, a lime-green monstrosity with black smudge marks from newspaper print and a large piece of silvery electrical tape closing a hole my younger brother made when he was messing around with a pocket knife. The chair matched nothing else in the room, sitting as it did atop a thin, black rug, but I bragged about it as if it were a treasure. I told my friends my dad had a leather TV chair. Years later, I would figure out it was vinyl, but I didn’t know the difference at the time, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Most families were about the same as ours, so I imagine there were lots of fake leather chairs around town, probably in a variety of colors.
Whenever I recall my family’s home back then, the television is on, was always on even when no one was around to watch. It talked and laughed and advertised, balanced on a TV tray in the center of the room’s longest wall. Dad is settled in with a bottle of pop and a sandwich. He ate two dinners when he was on day shift. He ate with the family then worked around the house fixing leaky water pipes, patching decaying bathroom tile, or sliding underneath the car to change the oil or make some adjustment that would keep it running just a bit longer. When darkness drove him inside, he was hungry and tired, ready for a shower and a “snack.” It was Mom who always said, “Why, Bill! That is not a snack. That is a second dinner.” He was in for the night, and it felt good to watch him laugh when Red Skelton played the drunk or Laugh-In’s Arte Johnson made the same old joke with Ruth Buzzi sitting on the park bench. “Do you believe in the hereafter?” “Then you know what I’m here after.”
Somedays, when our parents wanted a quiet dinner, they let us eat in front of the TV. I can’t blame them. We were loud and a handful. I suppose that’s the way people used to discuss children that were so close in age they were nearly one messy organism. Michael, me, and Clery lined ourselves up on the old couch along the back wall (opposite the television) and ate TV dinners out of aluminum compartments that Mom balanced on the remaining three TV trays: gooey fried chicken, Salisbury steak with gel-like gravy, thin turkey slices with a bit of gravy and wet stuffing. We had cartoon drinking glasses filled with milk (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound) and small dishes of fruit cocktail. Mom made sure each dish had at least one round, pink cherry winking out from the chunks of peaches and pears. The cast of Gilligan’s Island (the Skipper, Ginger, Mr. and Mrs. Howell) stared back at us as we forked in our meals and gulped the milk. Afterwards, we would head outside to pretend the episode we had just seen. Climbing the sycamore trees in our deep backyard, scrambling over the rough, flaky bark, skinning knees and shins, we kept watch for the rescue ship.
The naysayers would have us believe television is a mind-numbing activity. I believe they have forgotten the heart as I watch the familiar over and over from my own family room decades later. I suppose there are a few differences: two recliners, a flea market coffee table, a larger TV, and two brown-haired daughters coloring pictures and watching television as the Fred Flintstone of my own childhood, once again, piles his family and friends into his foot-powered, rock-wheeled car, and together they all head off to the drive-in movie.