Saturday, May 8, 2021

Lessons my TV mothers taught me

 This column was originally published May 12, 2000 in the Wilton (Connecticut) Villager and I posted it on this blog for Mother's Day, 2012.  My mother didn't raise me to be lazy, but I am, so here it is again.  Enjoy. And Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers out there.

I am the product of many mothers.

My biological mother to this day introduces me as her "baby" and apologizes for not having breast-fed me, as she did my older siblings. For some reason breast-feeding was important to the women in her family.

Her own grandmother, who had 12 children, was so enamored of breast-feeding that she continued to nurse her youngest, Luther, long past the time she should have stopped. When Luther was six, the sheriff came around to inquire why the child wasn't enrolled in school, and found him being breast-fed on the front porch, both of his feet planted firmly on the floor, as his mother rocked back and forth in a chair, smoking a corncob pipe. "He ain't old enough," his mother informed the sheriff.

My mother taught me to love reading, travel, cooking and Scrabble.

Then there were my TV mothers -- mothers with sons roughly my age -- on the shows I watched faithfully. Growing up with my nose pressed to the boob tube, I learned almost as much from those mothers as I did from my own.

One of my favorites was Timmy's mom, played by June Lockhart, on Lassie, which I watched every Sunday night.

Timmy's mother, Ruth, lived on a desert ranch with her husband, son, and, of course, Lassie, who was smarter than all of them rolled together. Though their home was little more than a shack, Timmy's mother always wore high heels.

As a child, I wondered why Ruth would raise Timmy in such a godforsaken place, which had tumbleweeds everywhere, abandoned wells to fall into, wild cougars, etc.

As an adult, I think I've figured it out. She had kidnapped Timmy from his real parents, and was hiding out where nobody could find them.

Ruth gave Timmy carte blanche to explore the canyons and rattlesnake-infested gullies of the area, secure in the knowledge that if he fell in a well, Lassie would sound the alarm.

From Ruth, I learned that good mothers give their children rope with plenty of slack to explore the world, and let them figure out for themselves how to get out of any wells they fall into.

Her suburban counterpart was June Cleaver, mother of Beaver and Wally on Leave It To Beaver. June, too, always wore heels, but rarely left her kitchen. Unlike Ruth, June was overly protective of her children and smothered them with so many questions after school as they ate her freshly-baked cookies that you just knew they must hate her and would never visit once they left the nest.

June couldn't cope with her boys and would wait until her husband, Ward, came home so he could deal with their troubled, dim-witted son, Beaver. "Ward, something's bothering the Beaver," she would announce ominously as he came through the door.

I suspect that while Ward talked it over with Beaver, June went to the kitchen and drank directly from a bottle of Smirnoff to dull the pain she must have felt from wearing heels all day on a linoleum floor, not to mention the disappointment of giving birth to a loser son like Beaver.

From June I learned that a mother -- even one who makes cookies from scratch instead of buying Nabisco -- shouldn't be afraid to deal with her kids' problems herself, something poor June refused to do.

In the early '70s, I was intrigued by John Boy's mother on The Waltons. Like me, John Boy was a college student studying to be a writer. Though she had six or seven kids, Olivia Walton clearly preferred John Boy to the others. To her, John Boy could do no wrong and she would always drop whatever she was doing to talk over his problems with him even if her other children needed her attention.

"Mama, mama, Jim Bob's cut his arm off at the sawmill."

"Shut up, can't you see I'm talking with my favorite, John Boy?"

From Olivia, I learned that some mothers have favorites. Every kid likes to hope he is the favorite but, if that's the case, his mother should at least try to hide it, unlike John Boy's.

In the '80s, I spent Friday nights with my rich mom, Miss Ellie, of Dallas. Miss Ellie insisted that her two adult sons and their wives live with her in the same house and share every meal.

Miss Ellie was invariably gracious to her slut of a daughter-in-law, Sue Ellen, who would return home every so often in an alcoholic stupor after a week away in the arms of various lovers. Sue Ellen acted this way to get back at her husband, J.R., who had girlfriends stashed all over town. Not surprisingly, the relationship between J.R. and Sue Ellen was volatile.

Surely Miss Ellie wanted to say something but always bit her lip and let them work it out. An inspirational example for mothers-in-law everywhere. When my sons bring their future wives home to live with us, I'm going to make sure my wife gives them their privacy, just as Miss Ellie did.

My current favorite TV mom is the feisty Olivia Soprano of HBO's The Sopranos. Last season Livia tried to have her middle-aged son, Tony, bumped off by the mob.

From Mrs. Soprano, I've learned that even a mother's supposedly boundless love has its limits and that every mother, ultimately, has an invisible line in the sand her child crosses at his own peril.

As so, as we prepare to celebrate Mother's Day, I would like to extend special greetings across the miles not only to my own mother, whose failure to breast-feed me has ruined my life, but to each of my boob-tube mothers on whose examples I was weaned.

Thank you, Moms. You've made me the man I am today.