Soap Opera Diva
copyright Barbara Allen 2009
Shepherd’s pie doesn’t seem like a difficult meal to make. It doesn’t have many ingredients, at least not the way our mother makes it: a layer of hamburger followed by a layer of corn, topped with mashed potatoes. She makes it often, once or twice a week, so she really should have the recipe memorized by now. Why then, Cindy and I wonder, does it sometimes taste so different, in a not-so-good way? Why is the hamburger, so moist and delicious one time, so dry and rubbery another? Why are the mashed potatoes sometimes so fluffy and golden-brown but other times burnt as black as charcoal? It takes us a while to figure it out, but at last we make the connection: the quality of our meal is directly related to the level of our mother’s distraction by television soap operas.
We are in school, of course, so it isn’t until the summer or holidays that we are able to see how the programs, which she fondly refers to as, “her stories,” consume her day. Hours before she can tune in, our mother is on the phone with friends and fellow watchers. With them, she discusses the characters and their tangled lives with more interest and enthusiasm than she shows for the real people in her life.
By mid-morning, she has finished talking on the phone and is ready to get down to the business of serious soap opera watching. She takes her coffee and cigarettes and stations herself horizontally on the couch, prepared for the first program. Sometimes she brings an ashtray; other times, she can’t be bothered and uses her coffee cup once it is empty.
Her focus on the television is unbroken until noon, when the soap opera program schedule is interrupted by the news. Our mother has no interest in what is happening in the world around us. As soon as the newscasters appear on the screen, she lets out an impatient sigh, heaves herself off the couch and makes her way through the piles of clutter to the kitchen. Even though it is only lunchtime, she begins preparations for supper, which has to be ready and on the table for our father by 5pm, no excuses allowed.
Our mother works at a feverish pace to get things done during the news break, anxious not to miss a minute of the soap that will soon follow. As soon as the first dramatic organ chords begin to drone, she is out of the kitchen and back to the couch, all preparations on hold.
Her programs have interesting names: Love of Life. Search for Tomorrow. The Guiding Light. As the World Turns. General Hospital.
The characters have interesting names, too, like Blade and Tiffany, Beau and Chanel. But the stories are all the same: everyone seems to be in love with someone else besides their own husband or wife.
Our mother doesn’t seem to mind the similarities between the story plots. Or maybe she just doesn’t notice. She doesn’t notice much when she is watching her soap operas anyway, which, we have decided, is probably why our supper is sometimes overcooked or even burnt.
She doesn’t notice us kids, either. We arrive home from school during her last two programs, and if we try to talk to her, the response is always the same: “Yeah, yeah, whatever you want. Now leave me alone and go outside.” We have learned that this is the best time to ask her for permission for things she normally wouldn't allow us to do.
Her last story ends at 4 o’clock, which puts the pressure on for the supper meal to be completed by the time specified by our father. The earlier lunch prep has been helpful, but there are always distractions which jeopardize the quality of our meal, like one of her fellow soap opera fans phoning to recap the day’s steamy action.
Cindy and I wish our mother would be less interested in soap operas and more interested in doing stuff that other mothers do, like baking cookies and asking kids about their day at school. We’d like to talk to her about things like that: how we did on our math test, what our friends are doing after school and what we want for our birthdays. Maybe then we’d be able to talk to her about other things, too: like why we live the way we do, in garbage and in fear.But wishing doesn’t change anything. Day after day she keeps watching the same old programs and making the same old meals. And day after day, at 5pm, our father comes through the door, already yelling before anyone has even had a chance to do anything wrong. We never know if our meals will be good or bad, but we do know one thing:
They will always be on time.