I have one unshakable love affair in my life that I owe entirely to my mother—my deep and abiding relationship with television. It's a sentiment we shared, and my greatest TV sorrow is that my mother died before Don Draper appeared on the small screen. She would have been wild about "Mad Men."
As a stay-at-home mom whose husband was often away on business (his job title as far as we knew was "businessman"), she relied on television for company. My mother smoked about three packs a day from the age of 15 onward, and in our house, every table held an ashtray and every room had a TV—even the kitchen. Reflecting back, I see how television helped her through the loneliness of my father's frequent absences, leading to his complete departure when I turned 11.
By then it was the '70s, but the revolution seemed to pass her by. The daughter of a no-nonsense Romanian immigrant who started working at the age of nine and eventually opened a beauty shop, my mom had the kind of glamour associated with the "Mad Men" era. She was a tall, leggy brunette who routinely told us kids to "go and watch television" while she fixed her face, spoke with friends on the phone and smoked. What might have seemed like poor parenting then I now see as her gift to us: Life is difficult; the end is often not the one you want, and it arrives much too quickly. But a TV series holds the promise of "next week," and when it does end, the finale is orchestrated to leave you feeling satisfied.
One of my most cherished memories is watching the final episode of "M*A*S*H" with my mom. I remember Hawkeye's mental breakdown, and the word GOODBYE spelled out in stones. Clinging to my mother on her king-size bed, a king-size cigarette burning on the nightstand and the stale smell of menthol filling the room, I sobbed uncontrollably in her arms, while she reassured me: Hawkeye got the goodbye he'd wished for and that meant everything would be OK.
My mother's favorite show was "The Sopranos." At the end of her life, ravaged by lung cancer, she told me in no uncertain terms that she was hanging on to find out how the series would end. She didn't live to see the final episode. But unlike many viewers, she would have appreciated the ambiguous blackout ending. Not because she had artsy inclinations—she liked her stories clean, with a beginning, middle and end—but because my mother understood something about families and the way we say goodbye.
"Mad Men" is written and produced by Matthew Weiner, a former staff writer on "The Sopranos." That's one reason I wish she had lived to see the AMC series. Don Draper—a veteran of the Korean conflict who, like Hawkeye, loves booze and women—would have intrigued her. But it's Betty Draper who would have made my mom want to beat cancer to see how the show turns out. Betty occupies an underworld different from Tony Soprano's, one I think only women "of a certain age" can understand. As Betty says at one point, referring to her own mother, "She wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There's nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go 'til you're in a box?"
Last Sunday, after learning that she had terminal lung cancer, Betty said, "I know when it's over. It's not a weakness. It's been a gift to me."
My mom spent her last days being wheeled outdoors to smoke. I enjoyed this time with her. The morphine made her calm and we talked about television as she smoked cigarette after cigarette until late in the evening.
The night she died, my mother looked skeletal and could no longer speak. The television in her hospital room was blaring—the nurses leave it on for the patients—but I don't think my mother was even aware of it. Still, I hoped that familiar hum was comforting even as her eyes stared at some far off point that I imagine only the dying can see. I told her she was deeply loved, that she could go now, that it would all be OK if she did. She died a few hours later.
I don't know how "Mad Men" will end when the series finale airs this Sunday. But I'm not worried. I thank my mother for teaching me about goodbyes—that the best ones happen with family, sitting around the television set, with the ashtrays full and the knives out.