Every year, come Oscar Night, I could always be found on my living room couch, sandwiched between my younger sister and my mother. For us, the cliché that Academy Awards was like our Super Bowl was true — as I was unabashedly obsessed with film and celebrity, and my sister enamored with the gowns. My mother, meanwhile, liked to pretend that she was doing us a favor by joining us.
“I don’t know who half these people are,” she would say, like she was above celebrity culture.
This was a big, fat lie.
All you had to do was toss a People Magazine in my mother’s lap and watch her eyes like up like a shark at the first scent of blood. Her knowledge of actors and their histories was encyclopedic; she was the one who recounted to me the ups and downs of Liz Taylor’s many marriages, the scandal of Natalie’s Wood’s mysterious death, and the nasty breakup of Sonny and Cher (this one was especially close to her heart, as people often mistook her for the olive-skinned, black haired Oscar winner). On the lives of these strangers, my mother commented with self-appointed authority. At the sight of a magazine cover with wedding pictures from Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s wedding, my mother smiled like an oracle and said, “He was ready.”
When the Oscars were on, Mom could only maintain her detached veneer for so long. As we crunched on Tostitos until the salt burned our lips, she would soon enough be yelling at the screen alongside us, yes, exactly, like a Giants fan watching Monday Night Football: “What is she WEARING?!? PUT YOUR BOOBS AWAY!” She would moan with pleasure at the sight of a well-clad Johnny Depp and bow her head solemnly at every one of Meryl Streep’s inevitable appearances. “No one can do what Meryl does,” Mom used to say.
For me, the Oscars were a temporary departure from reality, a launch into a fantasy world that both thrilled and calmed me like a drug hit. For some time, I was living in the throes of compulsive eating and weighed 250 pounds. My mother struggled alongside me, both with her own addiction and need to save me from mine. But when we sat before the TV screen and watched Billy Crystal sing, “It’s a wonderful night for Oscar, Oscar, Oscar, who will win?” we could forget these troubles for a while, pretending that there really was a world of spangle and glitter, where everyone was beautiful and everything turned out alright in the end.
Eventually, both my mother and I found our way to recovery, and real life became much more beautiful (and frankly, interesting) than the world of the movies. But Mom and I still watched the Oscars together for old time’s sake, and because it was fun.
The last Academy Awards show I watched live was in 2009, when Kate Winslet won for Best Actress. I had been a fan of hers since “Sense and Sensibility,” and was so excited by her victory I may or may not have punched my husband in the arm. It was also the first Oscars I ever watched without Mom. At the time, she was in her bedroom at the end of the hall, sleeping off a chemo treatment. It didn’t occur to me to run and tell her the good news, because she would be up and about in the morning, finish out her treatment, and be sitting next to me again at this time next year.
But by the following Oscar season, my mother had passed away.
For a good number of years afterward, I would tell myself that I was too busy and/or tired to watch the Academy Awards; I was chasing my own kids, after all. But there was also the fact that it was simply too painful to watch the big show without my mother. Her absence was so palpable, I couldn’t even concentrate on the simple pleasure of scoping out the haute couture. My sister would text me updates as the shows went on, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the television. It just wasn’t the same.
This year, however, I really wanted to see Lin-Manuel Miranda. So I finally settled in for the show, watching the parade of presenters and winners, laughing at Jimmy Kimmel, and waiting for the sock-in-the-gut of missing my mother. But that feeling didn’t come. Instead, I found myself smiling, imagining what my mother would say about this year’s fashions, or that crazy “Best Picture” snafu at the end. She would have had a field day with that one.
I realized that the years my mom and I watched together have guaranteed that I will always hear her voice as I watch the red carpet and the awards themselves. So from now on, I intend to tune in.