Friday, May 18, 2012

I Am Sally Draper

Sometimes we debate about the best of television. The Sopranos and the Wire are obviously among the best of the best. I would add the remarkably subversive Breaking Bad to the list. A lot of seminal shows, like I Love Lucy, are memorable, but more as historical artifacts. There are scads of programs laudable as great popular entertainment but only a handful that transcend this and are destined to be studied and revered as passionately as the works of Shakespeare or Mozart. I'm smitten with Mad Men, which in my opinion belongs in the pantheon of high art TV, but this week's episode particularly blew me away. Betty and Don are divorced, having had three kids together. Betty is now remarried to a political functionary and she and the kids live in his old family mansion. Betty's gained a ton of weight. It is suggested that she still carries a torch for Don, whose new wife is young, trim and sophisticated. The Draper's eldest daughter, Sally, would have been born in the late 1950s, like I was.

There's an essay in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnick which explores nostalgia in culture, particularly vis-Ă -vis Mad Men. Gopnick theorizes that the cultural pattern is to hark back about forty years. As we as we reach midlife it is satisfying to explore our childhoods from a mature perspective or for a younger audience, to paint with color their parent's oft told tales. Mad Men is often rich with poignant reminders of days bygone but watching the most recent episode I experienced more than a saunter down Memory Lane. Fat Betty attends a Weight Watchers meeting. This was all the rage in the mid sixties and my mother dragged me to my first meeting in about 1964. Back then the program required the consumption of fish five times a week, in four ounce portions for lunch or eight ounce portions for dinner. Beef was restricted to three meals a week and in this episode, Betty discovers her husband cooking a steak in the middle of the night. He confesses that he's sick of fish. I was given Weight Watchers frozen dinners and remember choking down a huge piece of dry haddock a couple times a week. One of my current Weight Watcher buds is also a lifer and we reminisce about old treats, including diet Shasta soda prepared with unflavored gelatine and a “Danish”consisting of cottage cheese with vanilla extract and saccharine slathered on toast and topped with cinnamon.

The authentic depiction of the early Weight Watchers experience was incredibly potent but the portrayal of young Sally's navigation between mother and stepmother is heart-stoppingly accurate. Even decades after the fact it is reassuring to know that I was not alone in my experience of this, although it is very painful to watch. Fat Betty arrives to pick up the kids at their father's swanky Fifth Avenue apartment after their weekend visit with him and his new wife. Betty, once the height of fashion herself is now relegated to a fusty old mansion in the 'burbs and the matronly selection of plus- sized clothing that was available in the 60s. Seeing the ultra-modern impeccable apartment and the nubile new wife provokes Betty to some real nastiness and sets up the unwitting Sally to put it into play. My own mother, like Betty, resented my stepmothers and heedless of the effect it would have on me, often plotted to stir up trouble.

I lunch with an old friend who has evolved from participation at a slick, Reform Hollywood synagogue, to rigidly Orthodox practice. His first wife is gentile and therefore, by virtue of his current religious affiliation, his adult children, despite having had (Reform) Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, are not considered Jewish. The situation is far more complicated than could be unraveled during a lunch or particularly a short paragraph here, but my friend's children no longer communicate with him. I think the rift is due largely to his embrace of Orthodoxy and consequent tacit rejection of his own, now non-Jewish, children.

My mother and sister were estranged for long periods. I had my own knock down, drag out fights with Mom. If I ever experienced even a nonce of the venom and resentment I felt for my own mother from my kids, I would open a vein. Spuds is taking his driver's test and Joe College is able to manage the treatment of a broken wrist with only a couple of phone calls home. They are naturally gravitating out of my orbit and I am at the stage in motherhood where it is realistic to strive for quality, knowing that quantity will become less and less of an option.

I beg Number One son to come home to see his brother in the play and he obliges. I bring a frozen dinner to each of the performances. I assiduously avoid the sweet and savory treats I strive to make appear appetizing and abundant as I plate them. Because Sunday is the final performance of the play, requiring the break down of the concessions area and cast party it occurs to me that there will be no celebration of Mother's Day for me. After the Saturday performance I ask Spuds if he's hungry which is an incredibly stupid thing to ask a teenage boy who is in the middle of a growth spurt. His brother has just arrived in town and agrees to meet us at an all night joint in Chinatown. We suspect that the management must drug the health department sanitation inspectors. Spuds and I descend to the dining room down a short flight of stairs. I hold the handrail as Spuds bolts down the rubber matted steps. “Sticky,” we both mutter in unison. Big boy arrives and I see his cast for the first time. There is a perfect ink sketch of the hand and wrist bone with a small arrow indicating where the bone is broken. He reports that “a girl” drew it and in that my kids are absolutely mum about their personal lives, at least I like the idea of a girl (and a talented artist, no less!) holding his arm for the hour or so it must have taken to illustrate the cast.

The restaurant is filled with mariachis, who finishing their Saturday night gigs, cross the bridge from East L.A. An ancient abuela arrives with her large family. Five waiters are unable to get the antiquated wheelchair elevator to operate so the grandsons gently lift her from the chair and carry her down the mucilaginous steps. We order three dishes and they are delicious, particularly so I guess after a week of Lean Cuisine. The kids shovel it in and there are still leftovers enough for two meals in the fridge. The bill is $17 and the server is delighted with her $4 tip. Midnight pig outs with the two kids will be less and less frequent and by the time we finish eating it is officially Mother's Day and I've never had a better one.

There are four performances the second weekend and I am so hammered that twice I leave for home without locking up the cash box containing more than $2000.00. Fortunately, the theater staff finds it and secures it but I take this as an omen that after twelve years of peddling cupcakes it is time to retire. I am lucky to find an enthusiastic (for now) replacement so the Sunday performance is my swan song. Number One son has a ticket for the last show. He is unable to use his GPS because the cigarette lighter in his car which powers it is on the fritz. Himself, unable to grasp that some people are less directionally inclined than he is, has drawn the boy a map. Himself's carefully rendered maps have always been of only decorative value to me and the boy calls ten minutes before curtain, hopelessly lost. Being navigationally retarded myself I have one of the other parents try to right the boy's course, to no avail. There are several heated phone conversations. Voices are raised. Tears are shed. I know that pathetic sick feeling of being utterly lost and late. Finally I convince the boy to just park the goddam car and call me when he figures out the intersection. The play begins and I use Siri to guide me to the City of Commerce, about 8 miles from the theater, via heavily congested freeways. I find the kid and he follows me. He is embarrassed but grateful that Mom knows the way to go.

The kids stop by my office during the week and order pizzas, a vegetarian one for themselves and pepperoni for the employees. I am surprised during my walk to the beach that when we traverse Pico/Robertson and there is a poster for a Lag Ba'omer celebration, I can't for the life of me remember the significance of the holiday, although neither could the rabbi's daughter walking beside me. Reading up now I discover that it is the 33rd day of the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot. Our Jewish practice has diminished over the years to the mere lighting of Shabbat candles, token observance of the heavy hitter holidays and abstinence from pork and shellfish. Joe College reaches for a slice of the pepperoni pizza. I tell him I don't really like him eating treyfe in front of me and add that I'm considering invoicing him for a refund on his Bar Mitzvah. He says, “OK Mom, I'll take it off. He carefully removes the slices of pepperoni and forms a neat stack, which he pops into his mouth. His face is lit with such naughty impishness that I just shrug.

The kids balk about the handful of temple visits we make during the year. They tolerate Shabbat because we speed through the blessings, I make a better than average meal and it is the one night of the week with guaranteed dessert. During the first few weeks of college, the freshman is a bit at sea and I encourage him to seek out the campus Hillel and he looks at me like I'd suggested he attend a Coldplay concert. Soon, he gets acclimated and reports having made some friends at the tiny college. A bunch of his college friends come stay at the house and I overhear discussion about Torah and realize they are all Jewish. There is even a picture on Facebook of my little pepperoni eater attending a makeshift Seder with half a dozen other Jewish students.

Betty Draper resents her ex-husband's glamorous life with great fervor. Betty's fury blinds her to what consequences her machinations to bring down her ex and his new wife might have on daughter Sally. In a Chicago Tribune review of Mad Men, Maureen Ryan writes, “you could almost sum up the AMC drama by calling a prelude to Sally Draper's inevitable years of therapy.” I wonder how Sally has fared in therapy and if she's grown to understand her mother's brokenness. I wonder if Sally is able to parent without the hobbling fear of wounding her children or pushing them away. I hope Sally is able to forgive and love her mother for what she was. I hope that Sally feels secure that her own children love her even when they choose to do things their own way and reject things that are important to her. Maybe Sally's mother didn't deserve her daughter's love and acceptance but I hope Sally is sufficiently healed to proffer it anyway.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I commend your adjectival nod to mucilage, a word that fascinates me typically as much as kudos repels me. I was thinking about the Yiddishkeit lately when Primo Levi, via an Irish FB's Friend's acclaim and mine shared, got me musing about a wonderful passage in his often harrowing "The Periodic Table" about his little dog accompanying him on a mountain climb. I look up to see younger son watching a mountaineering film as I type this moment. It's been on nine minutes, he tells me, and I ask the title. "The North Face." I recall I wanted to see it--all about the other side, those Nazis who climbed peaks just before WWII in Austria. What an odd set of associations. Like Sally D., media sparks memories. Shabbat shalom! xxx me