In honor of The Sun’s fiftieth year in print, we’re revisiting topics that have appeared in past issues and reprinting some of the original responses. “Watching TV” ran in our July 1996 issue.
When I was seven years old, my firefighter father splurged and bought a television. This was 1948, and no one else in the neighborhood had one.
The set was a ten-inch screen in a big wooden box. A roof antenna was needed for optimal reception, and after many a windy rainstorm my father would be up on the roof, repositioning the antenna while I relayed the picture quality to him through the window: a little father-son bonding.
My siblings and I bragged to the neighborhood kids about our television, and even the older ones who typically ignored us were happy to drop by and watch a show. My father had some rules for viewing — specifically about the selection dial you used to pick a channel. The problem was, we kids changed the channels quickly — click, click, click — and our father’s theory was that this damaged the expensive tuner. Every time one of us turned it too fast, he would yell, “I’ve told you a million times you’re going to break that!” and he’d send us to our room. It never did break, though, and we kept that set for many years.
Today I have a big color TV with stereo sound and many channels. Now, when I have the remote, it’s my kids who yell at me: that I’m about to erase a show, or mute the sound, or do something else not good. At least they can’t send me to my room.
San Diego, California
I grew up in a Chicago suburb when the Bulls were at their peak in the 1990s, but I never watched a single basketball game. My family didn’t own a TV.
The previous night’s Bulls game was all anyone could talk about at school the next day. I’d nod along as if I’d seen it. I knew better than to admit that I barely knew the basics of how to play the game or even how to operate a remote control. My one memory of seeing Michael Jordan on TV was at a friend’s house, when the best basketball player in the world bit into a burger during a McDonald’s commercial.
During the COVID lockdown I watched The Last Dance, a docuseries about the Bulls’ 1997–98 season. The series hinged on a big question: Would the Bulls win a sixth championship? I honestly didn’t know. My chest tightened when the buzzer went off in the final playoff game. It felt like a second chance.
This time, if someone talked about the latest episode of the show, I didn’t have to pretend. I’d seen the players dribble, dunk, and pass. I’d heard their shoes squeak on the court. I’d seen them soar through the air.
As an American traveling abroad, I sometimes find it hard to avoid being stereotyped — especially when I am in a so-called Third World country. To people there, I am from the “land of milk and honey,” where everyone has a house, a car, a job, vacations, and money to buy lots of things to keep them happy.
My friend and I recently visited a family who lived in a dilapidated one-room plywood house. The mother and children worked making embroidered bags and belts to sell to tourists. They had a hard time getting by, even compared to other people in the village, yet they owned a small TV. Sitting down with the family in front of the set, we watched beautifully manicured boys and girls play volleyball on a beach somewhere in California. They had expensive toys, nice clothes, and shiny cars; they looked so pretty, so happy, so perfect.
As I watched, I thought about the waterfall where we’d spent the day with a few of the children, eating oranges, baptizing each other with the juice, and diving into the pool to cleanse ourselves. They’d done flips off the rocks, fighting for our attention. It had been a moment of true paradise.
I was ashamed of the illusory American paradise on TV, uncomfortable with the children’s envy of what they saw, and with my envy of what I thought they had right there.
I grew up in a lively immigrant household with multiple generations living under the same roof. Every day there were visitors, noise, and commotion, so any moment of stillness, no matter how brief, was a refuge to me. After I moved out of that chaotic house, I spent most of my young adulthood living alone, reveling in the silence.
My husband grew up in a similar household: His extended family lived close by, and they gathered frequently. Like mine, his family had a TV in every room. The difference was that he thrived on the chaos. He liked the white noise the TV provided. The first thing he did when he got home was turn it on, and it stayed on until he went to bed, even if he wasn’t watching it.
I rarely watched TV with him at first, but over the years it became a way for us to decompress together, especially as life became more demanding. When he wasn’t home, though, the TV was off, and the silent house was my sanctum.
After my husband died unexpectedly, the silence was no longer my sanctum. Instead it became deafening, constantly reminding me of my harsh reality. It was many months before I could sit in the living room and watch TV again. Each time I tried, I’d hear his voice making comments as if he were next to me. It pained me knowing he would never get to find out what happened to the characters on the shows he’d watched for years.
As I’m adjusting to this unwanted life as a widow, I’ve abandoned the procedural cop shows my husband and I enjoyed together and have started watching ones he wouldn’t have liked. I’ve found consolation in dramas about grief, adversity, and coming of age. And when the quiet of the house becomes too deafening, I’ve started filling the space with music.
Sun Yen Cumby
Long Beach, California
My brother and I were not allowed to watch TV in the morning, and we could watch in the afternoon only if our homework and chores were done, which was usually around six o’clock. This left little time before our dad came home, and if he caught us watching TV — even if we had barely just sat down — in his mind we’d been watching the whole time he’d been at work. It didn’t matter if we’d done all our chores; he would provide us with some task to do until dinner. So as soon as we heard his heavy footsteps on the landing, we snapped off the TV, flew to our room, and pretended to read.
At night we were allowed to watch only what our dad wanted, which was usually the news or a boring black-and-white war movie. We would go to our room to play by choice.
Friday evenings were the exception. While our dad was out late, drinking with his office buddies, our mom allowed my brother and me to watch our favorite, The Muppet Show. Then, on Saturday morning, while our parents slept in, we would quietly pour bowls of Cheerios, heap sugar on them, and settle in for a cartoon bonanza: Looney Tunes; Hong Kong Phooey; Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!; and Tom and Jerry. Usually our mom got up first, which gave us time to turn off the TV and put our bowls in the sink, but sometimes our dad would find us. Then there was yelling, sobbing, and room cleaning.
Even today watching TV feels like an act of laziness. If there is a knock at the door, I’ll guiltily turn it off as if I’ve been caught. When I moved in with my soon-to-be husband, choosing what to watch felt like revealing something personal about myself.
My daughter is the opposite. She has no qualms about watching what she wants and will even ask my husband to change the channel, something I never dared suggest my father do. He actually watches her silly shows with her. I wish my own dad had done that.
El Sobrante, California
I remember falling asleep in the crook of my mom’s knees as she did jigsaw puzzles and watched America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. Later in my adolescence I’d stay up late watching true-crime programs, too curious to look away and too scared to go to sleep.
In my midtwenties my friends and I traded nights out at bars for Dateline, 20/20, and wine at home. We’d light candles, bake cookies, and settle in for the twists and turns of each new episode.
I kept watching after those friends and I moved apart. One night in 2019 20/20 told the story of a fertility doctor who, unbeknownst to his patients, had artificially inseminated them with his own sperm, with many successful results. My casual interest turned to horror. For years I’d been questioning my mail-in DNA results, even though I look like my dad’s side of the family. My dad, who died when I was fourteen, was Italian, and my mom is Irish, but my results had said I’m 50 percent Iranian — and my mom had once mentioned seeing a fertility doctor.
I looked online for details about the unethical doctor featured on 20/20. With some relief I could rule him out.
It would be another year before I logged on to see my results again. This time a new feature appeared: my DNA family tree showed six half-siblings, all with different mothers but the same father. I took the information to my mom and learned that, when my parents had tried artificial insemination in the eighties, they’d been told an anonymous donor’s “booster sperm” would increase the chance of my father’s sperm reaching the egg. The mystery was solved. I now knew why I hadn’t inherited my father’s bad knees or his smile. But I did get my love of pasta from his cooking, and my kind heart from his example. And from my mom I got my love of puzzles and true-crime TV.
Los Angeles, California
Few of my neighbors in India could afford a television when one first arrived in our chawl — a type of tenement. I don’t know if it was out of a generosity of spirit, but the lucky owners had no choice but to open their doors to the rest of us.
At the peak hour for viewing, their living room would host a small crowd, many of them strangers. Some squatted on the floor; others peered in through the window. We laughed at the comedies, cried at the tragedies, and cheered on our cricket heroes. For the most popular epic shows, like Mahabharat, it seemed the entire nation would grind to a halt.
Over time each of the fifty or so households in our building became affluent enough to have their own TV, and those gatherings faded away. But some diehards would still invite others over to watch and have a samosa and chai. Hindus and Muslims watched together, often learning to appreciate each other’s cultures.
In my family today each of us has our own screen. We sit in the same room and watch separate channels — together, yet apart.
San Francisco, California
Growing up surrounded by pastures and woods was great — except for the television reception. The cable company didn’t bring its services our way, and I envied my townie friends who had MTV to deliver them from the numbing boredom of the junior-high years. They got to see the latest Depeche Mode music video when it came out. They knew Doc Martens were the official footwear of melancholic coolness long before I’d outgrown my Chuck Taylors.
As I was finishing eighth grade, my parents bought me a small black-and-white TV for my bedroom. In clear weather I could occasionally pick up a station from over the lake in Canada. What a revelation. There were the Violent Femmes playing in a mall in Ontario. There was my idol, Annie Lennox, singing in a music video. There was hockey. So much hockey.
Sometimes late at night the station showed movies that wouldn’t have run on broadcast television in the U.S. The picture was staticky and faded in and out, but I could make out naked bodies writhing together, faces contorted in ecstasy. I was transfixed. It gave me a way to explore my wrenching, consuming desires long before I felt safe sharing them with anyone else.
I still like watching sex on-screen. The feminist in me knows the porn industry is complicated, and that some of those women may be coerced, but that doesn’t keep me from getting off.
When my parents were still married, we had a ritual of gathering on Thursday nights to watch The Simpsons. I would be furious if anyone was late because the “couch gags” at the end of the opening credits were my favorite part. In addition to being thirty minutes of family togetherness, it was the only time our parents let us watch television.
After the divorce my mom moved two hours away. My younger brother, Matt, and I went with her, but our older brother decided to live with our dad. Our first Christmas in the new house, our mother bought us all televisions for our bedrooms — even the brother who rarely visited.
Eight-year-old Matt was instantly impressed. I was more skeptical and let mine gather dust while I read obsessively. My mother worked twelve-hour days, plus an hour commute each way, so I had to babysit my little brother. We’d play video games and eat hot dogs and ice cream for dinner. At twelve I liked feeling responsible.
Within a few years both my brothers were living with my dad. Without Matt around to wrangle through dinner or have “sleepovers” in the bunk beds in his room, the house was quiet. The television became my evening companion as I worked on homework or created photo collages and birthday cards. I’d turn it off at midnight and jump into bed as I heard my mother’s key in the door.
Watching television helped me make friends. For years I’d been the kid who didn’t know about the shows everyone obsessed over, but now, as soon as the closing credits of Dawson’s Creek began to play, my friend K. would call, and we’d dissect the events of the previous hour, proclaiming our love for adorable Pacey and rooting for sweet Joey Potter. I was beginning to understand that if I couldn’t depend on my given family, I’d need to create one of my own.
San Francisco, California
Shuffling through the third trimester of my pregnancy in the fall of 2016, I almost entirely lost track of the upcoming election. Though excited at the prospect of our first female president, I was mostly exhausted.
Early on election night my husband and I returned home from the hospital with our four-day-old. Her birth had not gone as planned: an emergency C-section, preeclampsia, and a stretch in the NICU. I felt blindsided by how quickly everything had gone off script.
When my husband turned on the TV, the first few results were in, and Hillary Clinton had an early lead in Virginia. I dozed while my husband rocked our daughter. By the time I awoke, it was dark outside, and the dim light from the TV cast shadows on our living-room walls. There had been a dramatic shift: Florida and Pennsylvania were too close to call. My daughter slept in the bassinet beside the couch. Nobody had seen this coming, the TV announcer said. Clinton had a “very narrow path forward.” At some point I fell back asleep.
At 2 AM my daughter cried to be fed again. On the screen was the Democratic campaign headquarters: heads bowed, women crying. I nursed my daughter as commentators marveled at the voters’ pick to be the forty-fifth president of the United States.
My husband turned off the TV. I rocked my daughter uncertainly in the dark.
In 1962 my dad broke his neck in a freak accident. Despite making a miraculous recovery, he walked haltingly with a cane and could no longer commute into Manhattan. So our family moved to an apartment in the city.
I hated it. I was scared of city kids and spent as little time as possible with my fellow sixth-graders. Instead I took the bus home as soon as school let out and spent the afternoon watching TV. Except it wasn’t that easy, because you really had to work the rabbit ears to get reception. I pretended I was fishing, angling the silver rods until I hooked a signal.
My sister and mother always seemed to be out — “taking advantage of the city,” they called it — so my father and I spent a lot of time together in front of the TV. Black-and-white movies from the thirties and forties would get him talking about growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression: how he’d hitched rides on the back of trolley cars to save the dime and spent most days playing basketball. “You should go to that court by FDR Drive,” he said. “If you start practicing now, by the time you’re in high school, you’ll be good.”
I loved the stories but hated the advice. Every night there were reports on the news about people getting mugged — a word I’d rarely heard when we’d lived on Long Island. My father seemed to think nothing had changed since he was my age, and I was ashamed to tell him how scared I was.
One afternoon we were about to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood when my father remarked on what a lovely day it was. “Why don’t you take your ball to that playground? I’m sure there will be kids there on a day like this.” Instead of answering, I announced the names of the actors who appeared on-screen: Errol Flynn! Olivia de Havilland! Basil Rathbone!
My father started yelling that it wasn’t normal for a boy my age to be indoors on such a beautiful day. He’d never yelled at me like that before. When tears streamed down my face, he told me not to cry or he’d give me something to cry about.
I got my ball, but instead of leaving, I went to the fire escape to sulk. Then it occurred to me: I could stay there awhile and pretend I’d gone to the park.
That’s what I did for almost a year. I would run up and down the stairs a few times to work up a sweat. I’d even take my gym bag — packed with my homework or a book to read. If my father suspected, he never let on.
Durham, North Carolina
Every night after dinner my little brother and I would follow our mother’s boyfriend to the living room while our mom cleared the table and washed the dishes. The boyfriend would stretch out on our sofa, his big feet hanging over the arm, and watch television.
“Come sit with me,” he’d say. There wasn’t really room next to him on the sofa, though, so I would stretch out on the cushions in front of him. He’d drape his arm over my shoulder and pull me in close for a hug. In those moments I felt safe and cared for in a way I hadn’t since my father had died three years earlier.
When our mother would come in, he’d swat me on the butt, swing his feet to the floor, and tell me, “Sit up and make room for your mom.” I’d move to the armchair or play with my brother on the rug.
After I started growing breasts and getting a figure, something changed. Now when I lay in front of Mom’s boyfriend on the sofa, his hand often fell over my breast. He didn’t fondle me — just rested his hand on my shirtfront with the lightest touch possible. It didn’t seem intentional. The heat of his hand radiated through my shirt. I hadn’t started wearing a bra yet, and his touch aroused feelings I’d never experienced before and didn’t really understand. I sensed there was something wrong with this, but it also felt good in a way. It was the first time my body betrayed me.
Over the next few weeks his touch turned into a gentle brush, then a rub, then a light squeeze. Before long he moved from my breasts down to my belly, then to my crotch. My mother began staying in the kitchen longer and longer after dinner.
This went on for months without a word. I didn’t know how to stop him, and I didn’t want to.
For my fourteenth birthday my mom got me my own television set, and I began to watch TV alone in my bedroom while the rest of the family was in the living room. I couldn’t help but feel I was being punished for something someone else had done.
Stone Mountain, Georgia
In July of 1969 I entered America’s first televised war, serving in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I spent 411 days in-country. My fellow soldiers and I were scared and confused, and there were no John Waynes among us.
Communication with the outside world was limited to sporadic mail. Letters from friends and family back home revealed they were getting a more comprehensive picture of the war than I was, thanks to the television news. Sure, they couldn’t smell the war or feel the heat or the onslaught of the monsoons. Their screens didn’t show the rats and mud and dust or convey the fear we felt when mortars were coming in. But television brought them the weekly body count, after which Walter Cronkite would occasionally intone, “There is no end in sight.” (Decades later, as a father myself, I shudder to think how my parents felt seeing those pronouncements.)
And there was the combat footage captured by brave independent journalists: the Tim Pages and Sean Flynns, with their civvy clothes and long hair, who’d hop on choppers and ride into live hot zones, trying to capture the reality of war. These reporters helped end that disastrous conflict. Their footage and interviews with us cut through the gratuitous analyses of so-called experts who, for whatever reason, wanted the war to go on.
Most of us today think of television as entertainment with a few news stories thrown in, but it was once a direct line to violence and death thousands of miles from home: war forced into the American consciousness.
In 1964, when I was seven, my family moved from California to remote, mountainous British Columbia. My father had agreed to stop beating us kids on the condition that my mom would agree to go live in Argenta, a back-to-the-land Quaker community. Our paternal grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins were already there, and the move was supposed to help bring our family together.
The only available house was a tiny cabin at the end of the lake. Like everyone else in Argenta, we had no phone and no electricity, only kerosene lanterns, running water in the kitchen, and an outhouse. The main room held a woodstove and a small table. The only bedroom was barely large enough for our parents’ mattress. My sister, my brother, and I packed into the storage room: one slept on the floor, the other two in a bunk bed.
At first my siblings and I were excited to be close to nature and free to roam. Back in California we’d hated playing outside. It was so boring compared to The Flintstones or The Jetsons. But in Argenta we explored the rivers and creeks, followed cattle and deer trails, and tried to catch gophers by flooding their tunnels with a garden hose.
That first winter was hard. Deep snow surrounded our cabin. Most days we would trudge home from elementary school without enough daylight left to build a snow fort or snowman. So we stayed inside, huddled around the kerosene lamps, trying to avoid our father, who hadn’t entirely kept his promise about the beatings.
One Saturday evening our frazzled mother found an empty cardboard box and showed us how to make our own television. On paper we drew pictures of ourselves and the donkey who wintered in the barn behind our cabin. Mom helped us tape the pictures end to end, and my brother found two sticks from the woodshed that we could roll the paper on. We cut a hole in the box for the “screen,” turned the crank attached to the roll, and watched our show over and over.
The next morning was First Day, when we went to the Friends Meeting, which was like church but without any talking. We kids had grown used to the hour-long silence, but this particular day was hard. We counted the zipper teeth on our jackets, twirled a leaf on a thread to make it spin, and wriggled a lot. When we could finally talk again, we burst out: “We have a television!”
A loner named Zoltan didn’t believe us, so my mom invited him to see it for himself that afternoon.
By noon we were back home, excited to receive our guest, but it was snowing again. The road was soon closed, with no snowplow until Monday. Just when we’d given up, there was a knock at the door: Zoltan had cross-country skied three miles to watch the best TV show ever on our brand-new television.
I see it as a rival: that large, sleek black box my husband prefers to everything else. Hours go by as he plays video games with strangers, unable to break away even when I remind him it is 3 AM. How many shows has he ingested, movies has he seen, acts of violence or sex has he witnessed?
Having grown up in a house where we had meals at the table, I never thought I’d serve dinner to someone in front of a TV — or that the first few minutes of every meal would be spent searching for something to watch while we eat.
Of course there are the moments when I am attracted to the sleek black box and let it transport me to another world through a great film or series. But to my husband it is as necessary as air itself. I wish I were that to him.
In the twenty-six years I knew my grandpa, we never really talked. The TV was our only bond. Now that he is gone, I realize how little I know about him. I know that he liked to eat pickled onions with rice, and could sketch chickens. I know he was a nisei — a second-generation Japanese American — and had once worked on the railroads and picked grapes.
I grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, less than five minutes from my grandpa’s house. Whenever he and my grandma came over to babysit me and my twin sister, Judi, we would watch TV and eat sweet rolls dripping with sugary glaze. I can name every show that played during those years, from Gilligan’s Island to My Three Sons. Grandpa’s favorites were Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco. During the summer, we’d watch All My Children, which he and Grandma followed for years. (I now find it amusing that my traditional grandparents enjoyed a show about young white people who wore lots of jewelry and had affairs all the time.)
Sometimes they’d watch the Japanese channel on cable: samurai shows, singing contests, family dramas. Rather than read the English subtitles, I’d try to understand the dialogue, hoping to learn the language. I was too shy to practice my Japanese with Grandpa.
My grandma died in 1983, and in 1991 Grandpa was diagnosed with kidney cancer. While home from college for Christmas, I accompanied my parents to Grandpa’s house at five or six every afternoon. Judi and I would take turns sitting in the rocking recliner while Grandpa would lie on the sofa with his head propped up on a Japanese headrest: a hard vinyl cushion on a metal stand.
We watched the news, baseball, Wheel of Fortune, and Murder, She Wrote. Without the TV on, it would have been too quiet. An air of drowsy calmness permeated the creaky rooms: faded furniture still draped with my grandma’s weblike yarn doilies; snapshots of Judi and me in grade school; a wind-up alarm clock with glow-in-the-dark hands; an old man in baggy pajamas.
I wonder what he was thinking in his last years. Was he lonely? Did he fear dying? Was life still worth living now that he had lost his wife and gotten cancer, now that he couldn’t walk without a cane and needed his children’s help to survive?
But I never asked him those questions. We only watched TV.
My parents divorced when I was eight years old, and my life was split between their two houses. I was constantly packing and carrying my belongings and had to store a black duffel bag in my school’s office.
At my mother’s house I hung out with friends I’d made in her suburban neighborhood and rode my bike until the streetlamps turned on. Later we’d watch The Bachelor and Grey’s Anatomy in her massive bed, under a down comforter.
My father lived in my family’s old home, five miles up a dirt road in the remote woods. It had once been a beautiful place with yellow walls, red couches, and my mother’s decor, but was now mostly empty. My dad could barely afford to live there. Dinner would be frozen pizza or Subway sandwiches he would pick up on his way home from work. On weekends I’d drown myself in reruns of reality TV shows I’d already seen.
My father did his best. He worked long days. He got my sister and me a puppy — the only source of joy in that cold house. He was trying to take care of us while dealing with a broken heart. But nothing will ever compare to the relief I felt walking up the stairs to my mother’s, dropping my bag from my shoulder, and turning on the TV to watch something that wasn’t a rerun.
Each morning when I step out of my cell, I see a large gathering place with tables, an array of plastic chairs, and six televisions.
In prison, television is treated as a matter of life and death. Many convicts plan their day around programs, their lives dictated by TV Guide. Altercations, assaults, and sometimes worse ensue when two men can’t agree on what to watch. Those in control of the remote become diplomats who seek to appease both sides and maximize everyone’s enjoyment.
When cable service gets interrupted for more than a few minutes, there’s a palpable increase in tension. The men stare at the blank screens and speculate on when they will come back on, concocting elaborate conspiracy theories about why the cable is out.
On weekends and holidays the prison broadcasts a new movie to the entire institution, and for those two hours or so the persistent roar of hundreds of men dims to a tolerable murmur. Those of us who opt not to participate celebrate the quiet.
Stay-at-home motherhood in rural Montana has made me lonely, anxious, and depressed. I wake every day to piles of laundry, stacks of dishes, and a chorus of tears. Worse than the babies’ crying is the silence when they are napping. I go around the house corralling toys and thinking terrible thoughts like I’m a bad mother and I’m going to die alone.
When the kids wake up, I become a robot of affection, cleaning, and food-making. I turn on children’s programming for them and retreat into my own tiny screen. My own childhood was much the same: a parade of cartoons while my mother watched rom-coms on a tiny laptop and cried when she thought we weren’t looking.
A couple of days ago I was mindlessly watching something on my phone when my daughter placed her palms on my cheeks and made me look directly into her eyes. They are shaped like her father’s but brown like mine, with long lashes. We were almost nose to nose, and her curls fell between us. My face got hot, and sadness began to well up in my throat. I put my arms around her. “I see you,” I said. “I see you.”
During the blurry days between my mom’s death and her funeral, when my family could no longer bear the duties of the bereaved — my sister and brother-in-law organizing casseroles, my dad fielding condolence calls, and me trying to condense an entire life into a eulogy — we squished onto the couch and let the TV distract us.
One evening, when a commercial came on asking, “Do you know anyone with metastatic breast cancer?” I turned up the volume to get the name of the medication advertised, in case my mom hadn’t tried that one yet. Then I remembered.
My sister ducked beneath a blanket. My dad set his drink back on the table a bit too firmly. My brother-in-law tugged the remote out of my grip and pulled up a streaming service — one without commercials. He picked a sitcom my mom had refused to watch because she hadn’t liked its crude humor. The show’s jokes were not quite funny enough to make me forget what had just happened. After the episode ended, we waited in silence for the next to begin.
Several episodes later, my brother-in-law suddenly hit the skip button. “That one isn’t any good,” he told us.
What he didn’t say: That one’s too sad.
Durham, New Hampshire
When I called, Dad always said he was thinking about me. He’d done this at the start of our phone conversations ever since he and my mom had divorced. Now that he was in his eighties, he announced it with a certain desperation. He’d echo the sentiment several times while the TV blasted in the background: reruns of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Newlywed Game, The Jeffersons, or — his favorite — The Andy Griffith Show. I’d picture him sitting in his recliner in front of the screen. He’d ask if the floods or fires in Los Angeles had caused me harm, and I’d remind him I lived in Seattle now. The television laugh track would interrupt our silences. There were a lot of those.
A child of alcoholics, Dad didn’t like to talk about his childhood. When we would go to visit his mother, who hid liquor bottles around her home, he’d end up yelling and swearing at her until our mother would carry us to the car to escape the volatile scene.
I think my father found an escape in watching shows he’d seen so many times. There were no unpleasant surprises in Mayberry, where Sheriff Andy Taylor kept the peace.
To make conversation, I would ask what was going on in the sitcom. “Well, Opie has gotten himself into trouble,” Dad might say. I’d ask why. “He hurt Barney’s feelings.” How’d that happen? “He made fun of his policing — said he couldn’t catch a cold!”
I didn’t necessarily get to know my dad better this way, but talking about fictional lives that didn’t carry the pain of his own was a way to be with him. It kept the conversation going a little longer.
The first time she came to my house, she asked why I didn’t have a television.
“I’d rather not watch other people laughing and living their lives,” I said. “I want to laugh and live mine.”
She told me it was pretty arrogant not to own a TV.
I explained that I would rather take the garbage cans to the street than sit in front of the tube. At least then I could look at the sky, feel the light rain on my face, notice the days getting longer.
Decades later we’re still together. We have a television, and some of our happiest moments are spent on the couch. If we’re deep into a movie or miniseries, time will pass without my awareness. Suddenly I’ll notice she’s holding my arm tight. How long has she been doing this?
I’ll realize I should get up and wash the dishes, maybe take out the trash. Instead I’ll reach for her hand and keep watching.