Tuesday, December 15 , 2009

What the Survey Doesn’t Say

William Bradley

Emily insists that my obsession with the old woman is odd and unreasonable.  To be honest, I’m not even sure why she caught my attention, although I guess the fact that I’d been drinking probably played a role.  We had finished one bottle of wine and had opened a second when we decided to watch an episode from the All-Star Family Feud DVD she’d bought me for my birthday (I have admittedly perverse tastes when it comes to entertainment and pop culture).  So maybe that was it—I was too impaired to really pay attention to what was happening with the casts of The Brady Bunch and Petticoat Junction, and instead found my attention wandering behind Richard Dawson during the final round, over the right shoulder of his black tuxedo, towards the old lady wearing the red pantsuit. 
The first thing I was struck by was that she seemed so very happy to be there.  Smiling, clapping, and dressed to the nines (as I imagined they said when she was younger).  “How nice for her,” I actually said aloud, pointing to the television so that Emily would notice her too—although you really couldn’t see much of her and she wasn’t on the screen for very long.
But then—and I don’t really know why, except maybe I was reminded by seeing Robert Reed on the screen, alive, smiling, quite likely already infected with the virus that would eventually take his life—I remembered how long ago this all happened.  1983.  This woman who couldn’t have been younger than seventy-five then was seated between two much younger women—daughters? granddaughters?  Her husband was, likely, dead and in the ground.  As she no doubt was by the time I was watching the episode decades later.
I thought it was just the booze making me maudlin that night, but it apparently wasn’t, as I find myself thinking of that old woman from time to time even now.  She’s gone and lost forever, I assume, yet she’s still there, on the screen, laughing at Richard Dawson’s smarmy attempts at humor, gazing at that ridiculously-large bow tie that must have been fashionable then.  And it seems kind of sad to me to think that this woman’s immortality depends upon a cynical generation’s desire for retro-kitsch.  She may have survived the Great Depression.  Or the Holocaust.  She knew love, I’m sure, and she also knew suffering—maybe cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease, or a stroke that made laughter painful, applause impossible.  I wonder if she died at home, surrounded by family?  Or maybe in a nursing home, alone and scared?  Those two younger women were with her at the show, but did they take care of her, or was this just an obligation—“Take the old lady to see her favorite show being taped, and then we’re off the hook until Christmas”?  Did she know when she got up that morning that this would be a special “All-Star” version of the show, or was it a pleasant surprise, to be able to see Frank Cady and Maureen McCormack at the same time, on the same stage, as Dawson himself?  And when all was said and done, was it really that great?  Did they deserve the applause?  “At the end of your life,” I want to ask this digital ghost, “looking back, did these tiny pleasures make up for the suffering?”
But I guess it’s ultimately self-centered for me to make such use of this old lady, conflating her life and death with my own thanatophobia and anxieties about time’s inevitable forward march.  Part of the reason looking at her makes me sad is that I assume that her own mortality caused misery to outweigh joy in her life.  But I don’t know that; I didn’t ask her.  And it’s irresponsible to presume that my pessimistic intuition reflects the reality of other people who have lived and died.  After all, anyone who ever lost on the Family Feud can tell you that one’s own assumptions are not necessarily reflected in the larger survey.

William Bradley's work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of magazines and journals, including the Bellevue Literary Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Normal School, College English, Brevity, and the Missouri Review. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice (in 2005 and 2008) and my essay "The Bald and the Beautiful" was listed as a Notable Essay of 2005 by the editors of The Best American Essays series. He currently lives in Murfreesboro, NC, where I teach at Chowan University.


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