The last couple of weeks, I have been surprisingly emotional over the death of actress Jean Stapleton.
The television show All in the Family was a big part of my childhood and Jean Stapleton’s passing almost feels like a member of my own family has died. I know that sounds starstruck and kind of stupid, since All in the Family was a television show and not real life. Yeah, yeah, I should pick up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and spend my life doing something meaningful rather than watching TV. Got it.
“One of the most acclaimed and controversial shows on television.” is what Henry Fonda said about this show and it holds true today. Watching old episodes on DVD, the show holds up beautifully, still uproariously funny and touching in just the right way, despite the 70s fashion and the infusion of political correctness that has permeated American life in the decades since this show went off the air.
I love it for those reasons certainly, but I love it for something much more.
For a half hour a week, on Saturday nights my family gathered around the television and watched this show–and we laughed.
Our home was not a home where there was an abundance of laughter. My parents, by the time All in the Family had premiered on television, were holding their marriage together by a few thready strands, those being my brothers and I, but mostly, their own inertia. The love they once felt for one another had been replaced by distance, by fighting, by silence. Much like the headlines of that era, they moved in a kind of Cold War with one another, each one daring the other to up the ante a little more but, for years, never actually doing anything.
My brothers and I were their Cuba, their Korea, and their Vietnam. The places around the globe that they went to fight it out since they couldn’t really go to war with one another. We just spent those years ducking and diving into the nearest foxholes.
My parents both had their own problems and they were from the generation where you didn’t focus or talk about your problems; you pushed them away, you dealt with them by not dealing with them, you just got on with it. In our household, as much as my parents tried, they couldn’t hide their scorn from one another. What was worse than the fights was the silence, which seemed to stretch on forever and live like a thick front of humidity so oppressing that it was hard to find fresh, breathable air most days. My brothers and I retreated as best we could. My brothers were teenagers, so they had their lives to escape to. I clinged to our extended family and friends of my parents and tried to avoid home as much as possible. I spent a lot of time staying at my grandparents or having extended visits with my cousins, anything to escape the silence and find fresh air.
Except for that half hour every Saturday night.
For that little nugget of time we gathered around the television, either in our family room or in my parents bedroom, and we laughed. Nothing was strained–we laughed until we cried sometimes. My parents would make little inside jokes with one another during the commercials or talk about a particularly funny scene. No bitterness, no rancor, nothing hanging in the air.
Just. A. Family. Enjoying something together. A half hour every week.
It was the best half hour of every week.
Although our family life was far from perfect, I learned over the years how to understand my parents, to understand why our family was as it was. My parents were both smart, bright, and funny but they both had painful childhoods that were difficult for them to get past. My dad was charismatic and charming and my mom was a great caregiver, easy to talk to, and really funny. It took me many years but I learned to love their many great qualities, to see them as more than just two people in a bad marriage. I was able to learn that they were human, infallible creatures who made mistakes.
They helped me to learn how to see the best in people and to understand that no matter how fabulous we are, we all have limitations.
Being their daughter taught me the great art of acceptance.
It has served me well in life. I am a better wife and mother for it. When my daughter was diagnosed with autism, it was a terrible revelation, but having parents like mine taught me how I could accept the diagnosis, how I could live with it and find the good in autism and how one terrible truth didn’t overshadow all the other truth and beauty that she has to offer this world. My husband and I don’t sweat the small stuff, we don’t fight over who takes out the garbage and when we do fight, we talk it out until it is resolved, we don’t carry years of resentment on our backs. We don’t retreat in silence; our air is breathable, fresh, and clean.
We don’t need a television show to make us laugh. We find laughter every single day.