The Cleavers for a Day

My family was in a commercial for the American Cancer Society more than 50 years ago, but I'm still not sure it was my family

America wasn't ready for the real mishpocheh.

In 1952, my then-32-year-old mother went to the dermatologist, maybe to have a couple of pimples popped. Back then, few physicians, even dermatologists, were hip to the perils of skin cancer. But Dr. Irving Cohen, may he rest in peace, noticed a strange-looking mole on my mother’s lower right leg and immediately shipped her off to the hospital for tests. The odd-shaped mole proved to be a nasty early-stage melanoma, and the surgeon dug it out in time to keep my mother alive for another 62 years.

Somehow, this inspiring little tale became known to the folks at the American Cancer Society and all of a sudden the Mehlers were the ACS’ flavor of the month. My mom did the talk show circuit and the camera crew invaded our home and filmed us in action for a national one-minute TV spot on the "7 Danger Signals of Cancer." Twenty five years later, the commercial was still airing across parts of rural America.

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Until very recently, an 8mm print of that commercial spot lay forgotten at the bottom of a desk drawer. I hadn’t seen it in more than 20 years, and that was without the sound. As 8mm film projectors these days are pretty hard to find, a friend had it transferred to DVD, and last week I watched it again, with fresh eyes.

Now, I’m no stranger to being culturally stereotyped: an upper-middle-class Jewish kid from the North Shore of Long Island, Brandeis University, politically progressive, talks with his hands ... you get the picture. And I’m OK with that. But here I was, at age 5, getting culturally stereotyped for the very first time, and it wasn’t even the right stereotype. America, in the years after WWII, was laughing heartily at Molly Goldberg’s TV sitcom family, but it sure as hell wasn’t ready for the real mishpocheh. So the ACS turned the Mehlers into the Cleavers for a day.

Here’s how they did it:

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In the commercial, my mother stands beside the dining room table, stirring a heaping bowlful of chocolate pudding—the kind that mother used to make, before Bill Cosby—and feeding it to her two adorable, red-blooded American children. My 2-year-old sister, 16 years away from a lifelong heroin addiction, gleefully mashing up the pudding with her hands, and me, giving Opie and the Beaver a run for the money. Topping off this blissful pastiche of life on the suburban frontier was a voiceover from an actress introducing herself as my mother. That is, my mother—if she talked like the Queen of England

Not coincidentally, my father, who was puttering around the house that day, wound up on the cutting room floor. I can’t swear to this, but in retrospect, I believe the old man’s countenance was just a tad too ethnic for Kansas and Oklahoma.

With all this purposeful activity swirling about me that day, I recall experiencing mixed emotions. Great pride in my mother, and a profound desire that she would take all the determination, intelligence and survivor’s grit that it took to beat the Big C, and employ it in the service of something other than us kids, who were being smothered by it. Sadly, that never happened.

Now, our ancestral home is gone, sold off and totally remodeled by a young Persian family. I suspect that the space once occupied by the dining room is awash in the ghosts of a thousand and one screaming fights. Still, on one shining day long ago, there was no screaming, only bright lights, good intentions and gobs of chocolate pudding. Maybe, out of that, a lot of dangerous moles were diagnosed and excised and a lot of American families remained intact. If so, you can go ahead and cast me as the Beav any day of the week.

Tags: family