ANDREW M. HOWARD
After After All
Maybe it was the fever. I felt like I got all the jokes; I was charmed by the quaint theater-production artifice of old school television. Plus, I don’t usually cry at TV shows. An acoustic guitar placed over a dog greeting a homecoming soldier in an insurance commercial, maybe. But between the dog, the soldier, and the acoustic guitar, the commercial’s hit an emotional trifecta. Such moments are manufactured for maximum schmaltz and heartstring-pulling. This time, though, I was sick and I was sad and I was reduced to full-on, tears-and-a-strange-guttural-sound sobbing by the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I probably would never have gotten around to it, except I was too sick to move and home from work. This is the only way I can let myself lie down and watch television guilt-free, and I watch the things that Katie, now that we’re married, is no longer obliged to suffer through. Our Netflix queue is full of weird movies I’ll never watch unless I get mono or break both of my legs. She even encourages it—“Watch a Criterion Collection,” she’ll tell me. So after I half-slept through the world’s slowest western I thought back to a podcast I had listened to that week. The hosts were talking about the life and impact of Mary Tyler Moore in the wake of her death. I put on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, season one, episode one.
In the first act we meet Mary Rogers. We learn that she is a lot of things: a pushover, a Presbyterian, an eager young woman discovering her own ambition and independence after leaving her fiancé and moving to Minneapolis. Her life is swirling in chaos, but she types 65 words per minute and possesses no small amount of what her new boss calls spunk. How will you make it on your own? the theme song asks. This world is awfully big, and girl, this time you’re all alone.
But it’s time you started living. Mary Rogers is, in fact, starting to live her own life, alone and on her own terms. Around that same time, very possibly the exact same time, my mother was living on her own in Germany, riding a train 45 minutes every day into Frankfurt for work, for dinner and drinks with German and American friends, for a year-long adventure after her own life misfired as it was just beginning. On weekends she would explore the city and the surrounding country—what had become, for that year, her world.
I happened to be in Frankfurt a few months before. Katie and I were on a trip to Athens. A delay gave way to a spectacular run through a mile of Frankfurt airport, ending in a photo-finish with us on the wrong side of the jetway door. Rather than endure a 12-hour layover, we decided to check out the town. Riding on the U-Bahn, I thought, for the first time on that trip, of my mother. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized she might have lived in Frankfurt, so I asked her when my father handed her the phone. “It’s Andrew,” I could hear him say in the background. “They just got back from Athens!”
“Hi, Sweetheart,” she said.
I asked how she was.
“Oh, you know, just…here.” Her voice was cheerful enough. By “here” she meant a small town outside of Albuquerque where she and my father have been living for five or six years. It’s east of the Sandia Mountains, which means that winters are far crueler than they are in Albuquerque proper to the west. They didn’t want to admit that, as soon as they moved in, they were blindsided by the weather and ready to leave. My mother doesn’t really hesitate anymore, though. “You know, same old, same old. I look around this place sometimes and think, hey, that’s kind of weird.”
Weird is one of her words. It can mean a bunch of different things, I think: weird because she doesn’t particularly like the house, weird because the house seems unfamiliar after living in it for three or four years, weird because sometimes she believes that other people live there with her and my father, weird people who maybe move things around or come and go while my parents are sleeping. My father told me about the people once, that my mother thinks they’re there sometimes, but hey, they don’t mean her any harm. She’s not afraid of them or anything.
“The house?” I asked her.
“Ugh, this house. But I look around and think, yeah. This place is okay.”
Yeah has been another one of her words lately, a placeholder for something out of reach, an ocean of specificity of which, lately, she can only wade on the surface.
I told her that we just got back from Athens and Malta, that we saw the Acropolis, all the touristy stuff. I could practically hear her eyes widen, hear her smile. “You did? Boy, you guys are always going places. I think it’s just terrific.”
After going through the trip, I talked about our bonus country, how we walked around the city, took a boat down the River Main, drank beers and ate German pastries before heading back to the airport. She laughed.
“I thought of you,” I told her. “When you were in Germany. Was that where you were?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I would take the train every day and think…this is neat. It was really nice. Really terrific. There was always a whole lot of people on the train and you would just get to where you were going.”
I told her about the rest of our trip. It was a good phone call. We talked for maybe five minutes, which for her current state is forever. She handed the phone back, as she always does, to my father. I had to stop him before his usual sign-off and ask him where mom lived in Germany; I just wanted to confirm that I had been now to the same place, the right city.
“Oh, yeah, Frankfurt. I think so.”
I don’t recall ever seeing pictures of her during her adventure, living farther away from anything and anyone in her life than she ever had, but I have certainly seen pictures of her throughout that decade. The last time Katie and I were at the house in New Mexico we found what looked like the world’s first selfie, an out-of-focus snapshot of my parents’ faces, impossibly young and happy. There are pictures of them camping where my mother’s hair is nearly shoulder-length; I’ve only known her to sport the same pixie cut for most of her life. I imagine the same exuberance in those photos to carry over into the years before my parents met, once she was able to leave her life for a while and try the things she never had a chance to try.
My mother came from New Jersey, from that city that boasts its unstoppable manufacturing prowess from a rail bridge over the Delaware River: Trenton Makes, The World Takes. She always had stories about growing up in Trenton, about her friends Mary and Johnny who, decades after meeting at age three, still figured into one another’s lives. Stories about milkmen and roller skating, about her Catholic church and the fun one—maybe it was Presbyterian—that Mary and Johnny went to.
But the stories conveyed a sadness, a dissatisfaction that I could sense but never quite grasp. Her father, who died when I was born, was a blue collar guy. What he did, I never really knew. In fact, I always imagined that he worked at the docks, but this may be because he stands near a boat in the only picture of him that I’ve seen. There was a dog, Louie, whom my mother tried to love, but was a neurotic mess.
In another life she would have been a teen mother. She married the would-be father, an Italian who lived with his loud family. They communicated by yelling; they ate dinner in their undershirts. This was her first year of adulthood, post-high school. I have only heard her describe it as a miserable situation, that her miscarriage saved her, let her escape what I imagine would have been a life more Edith Bunker than Mary Rogers.
She was born ten years after Mary Tyler Moore, but was only six years younger than the character Mary Rogers. To me, their ages are close enough to form a bond: a young woman, either newly in or out of her twenties, coming to a new city to prove she might just make it after all.
Which is possibly why I had never watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was almost certainly part of the Nick at Nite lineup at some point, and as a child I became familiar with a slew of syndicated television shows I watched but never really understood, like My Three Sons or Night Court, or shows that I watched but didn’t actually like, like The Monkees or—later on—nearly every episode of Full House. But I never watched those shows from the seventies, either thinking I wouldn’t get them or they were somehow not for me. Mary Tyler Moore seemed like it could have been for my mother, and I can’t think of anything that would have turned my preteen self away from something faster than that. Why would I watch some old mom show when I could mainline three episodes of Saved By the Bell in a single afternoon?
I couldn’t help but think of my mother and how this woman could have been an icon for her. I don’t really know, and I’m afraid I’ll never ask. The one Mary that I know my mother admired was Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. She even met that Mary at a concert once, if I remember the story correctly. I think she played in a tent on a very rainy night. My mother’s feet were caked in mud, and Mary let her borrow her boots. I’m afraid I’ll never ask about that one either, but only because I don’t want my memory of the story to be wrong.
I have just realized that I am now half my mother’s age, the age she was when I was born. Doesn’t that only happen once in a person’s life?
I’m old enough now to appreciate The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In fact, I found it delightful, though I spent half of the episode facing the couch cushions with a hood over my face. The climax is classic hijinks: both Mary’s erstwhile fiancé and Ed Asner, playing her boss, show up in her new apartment has done the same. The fiancé has strung Mary along for two years. Ed Asner is drunk. Like the best television comedy, much of this would be illegal in real life. Mary sends her doctor fiancé away, though she does it almost involuntarily, in spite of herself. “I was always bad at goodbye,” she says, only realizing that she’s saying goodbye as she says it. It is not a moment of confident defiance as much as it is one of slowly building assertiveness and potential coming to the surface. In this moment Mary’s life is now irrevocably her own.
Ed Asner, assessing her husband-never-to-be, he tells Mary that she’s not missing out on much. “But he is,” she says, looking at nothing in particular. Her voice is a mixture of sadness and newly-found freedom. “He’s missing out on the best wife—”
I don’t know the rest of the line because at this point, I have broken into tears. This is not the oncoming catharsis of a cry you know is coming, like when my brother returned in one piece from Iraq while I was in a deep Marvin Gaye phase and “What’s Happening Brother” cut through me one day on my way to work. Or the scene in The Elephant Man when John Merrick goes to the theater and enjoys one moment of joy in his miserable life. Even that Transparent episode on the cruise ship where Judith Light—aging, impossible not to remind me of my mother now—starts singing Alanis Morisette’s “One Hand in My Pocket,” of all things. Those I can feel coming.
Not this one. When Mary Rogers declares that she would rather take on a new life in which she can recognize her own value and perhaps be valued by someone else, I went from mild, sleepy enjoyment to intense sob in an instant. And I knew why without having to think about it. This young, vibrant woman was taking on life, making it after all, while at the same point in time my mother was doing the same thing in her own real life, and this is as close as I can get now to seeing that side of her.
My mother has no short term memory anymore. She does not remember my wife’s name. She has lost so many concrete nouns that when we speak I can’t be sure that either of us really know what she’s talking about. Every time she mentions something specific from the past, I think of it as a small victory against the thief inside of her who is stealing her identity bit by bit. Mary Rogers in that moment is all identity, and I am afraid that in this moment, or one coming harrowingly soon, my mother as I want to know her will be a memory.
It was in that moment that my fever broke.
Katie came home that day, hopeful that I was feeling better, and I was. The sickness had done most of its damage, and I felt much more alive. I told her, though, that the weirdest thing had happened. I told her about how I tried to pass out to the television, something I can rarely do on purpose, and I decided to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I set up the episode, the doctor fiancé and his exit. And I got to the line that made me cry—unable to really explain why—and I couldn’t even say it without falling back into tears.
But there are still stories. I have to work hard to pull them out of her now, and I feel like I’m somehow exploiting her, like I’m trying to interview her back into a previous state of lucidity. When I was younger—when we were all younger—I would half-listen or forget all the details, and I feel like it’s my fault that I don’t have more to hold onto.
One of my favorites was about her Woodstock. My mother told it to me when I was a teenager who would watch Woodstock: The Movie during every PBS telethon. I even had the original soundtrack on CD, then later the expanded boxed set, both of which I got through Columbia House and opened like Christmas presents. In 1969 my mother was in her early 20s and had been trying the adult thing, too laden with responsibility to go play in the mud with the other flower children.
I went to one of those once when I lived in Germany. I felt like I had missed out on all that stuff cause I was married the first time and I didn’t get to go to Woodstock even though it was all anybody could talk about. So we took the train out to some place in the middle of nowhere and there were all these dirty people everywhere! They were driving in in their VW buses and as we were walking in through this field there was a girl with a baby and she was wearing a dress. And she was dirty, just covered, and her hair was greasy. Anyway, she’s holding this baby in one arm and lifts up her dress with the other and just squats and uses the bathroom right there in the field! She didn’t care or even go somewhere where no one would see her. I thought, this is not for me, these dirty people. Gross! I guess I didn’t miss out on much, did I?
I probably won’t watch any more Mary Tyler Moore. I don’t know what kind of weird emotional sneak attack the show still might carry for me. Maybe I’m afraid of what comes after after all. But I still talk to my mother every time my dad hands her the phone. I worry a bit when he doesn’t, though sometimes he’s just in the garage. Sometimes, like on her birthday the other day, she seems together, seems to be in a good mood, but gives the phone back to my father after a minute or two.
I asked her a second time about Germany. She told me what a great time in her life it was, that she went with some people she knew from high school—news to me, but welcome information. Her words were wonderful, strange—just like that. “I remember people that were…strange, but I liked them a lot.”
She has never used the word Alzheimer’s (it’s miracle enough that my father’s said it the few times he has) when talking to me, has never even referenced the fact that something is different. She said something to me when I asked her about Germany this last time that was as close as she’s come to admitting the reality of the situation, though.
“Just make sure you take notes because it flits away,” she said. I was already doing just that, writing what I could on a blank piece of typing paper, jotting down bits of her Germany story so I wouldn’t forget. She was talking about how Katie and I like to travel and at the same time she was talking about that period in her life, when the world was awfully big, as the theme song goes. There’s another line I wrote, and on paper it looks like it was the next sentence she spoke.
Make sure you take notes because it flits away.
But I think that’s wonderful.
I don’t know what to do with those two lines, their weird juxtaposition. Maybe it’s just a continuation of that same thought, as her thoughts come now. I’m not sure now; I just wrote down whatever I could, trying to keep up while I can.