“Nellie? You’ve been both a daughter and a mother,” the teenage Allison MacKenzie asks the housekeeper. “Which one is worse?”
“Being a mother,” Nellie answers without a moment of hesitation. Why? “You find yourself doing the same things you hated your own mother and father doing.”
And there they stand, right in the middle of Constance MacKenzie’s kitchen: my mother’s chairs. The ones for which she spent years saving S&H Green Stamps – 40 books.
I should know; I’m the one who pasted them in the books every Friday afternoon after our weekly trip to the Acme Market with Aunt Lillie. Sometime in the early 1960s, Mom had picked the wooden side chairs out of the Green Stamp catalogue. We all laughed, my father and brothers and I (none of us known for our tact), and told her she’d never save enough stamps to get them. But she was determined, and one day they arrived at our house from the Green Stamp redemption center, in big boxes tied to the roof of a friend’s car. They took their places, one on each side of the square kitchen table where we ate our meals, and there they stayed until the house and its contents were sold at auction after Mom died in December 1994.
The dialogue between Allison and Nellie takes place about a half-hour into “Peyton Place,” the 1957 film version of Grace Metalious’s novel about the seamy, steamy underbelly of a picture-perfect New England town not so different from ours in Pennsylvania. And what more appropriate place to find my mother’s chairs?
“Peyton Place” was something we shared. Not the movie, which came out when I was 2, or the novel. In my childhood, “Peyton Place” was still considered somewhat scandalous – the kind of thing Mom and her friends would talk about in whispers, much the way she’d hide borrowed copies of The National Enquirer under a stack of papers atop a tall bookcase. But when “Peyton Place” appeared in its third incarnation, as television’s first prime-time continuing story – i.e., soap opera – in 1964, there was no question that she would watch it, and I with her, in our long evenings at home together while my father was out on police patrol.
Whatever my parents’ flaws in bringing up a child too precocious for her environment, they never once tried to censor my reading or television, though more out of benign neglect than broadmindedness. (I was home alone at 16 when the first episode of “All in the Family” was broadcast, with a warning that some material might not be suitable for all audiences. I actually thought about phoning my parents at work to ask permission, then decided to just go ahead and watch it. Since it turned out that Archie Bunker was my father, there was nothing I hadn’t already heard.) Besides, where soap operas were concerned, I was third-generation. My grandmother had followed her “stories” on the radio, my mother on black-and-white television, often listening from the kitchen as she did housework like her mother before her. Having grown up fully conversant with “Love of Life” and “Search for Tomorrow” and the earliest days of “General Hospital,” I naturally joined my mother for “Peyton Place.” Our inevitable fights – what my friend Brina (Readers and writers, Sept. 27, 2010) would one day term “the mother-daughter warps,” after a phrase coined by her own daughter — came later. But is it any wonder I later spent several years writing the daytime TV column for The Boston Globe?
When the nearly three-hour movie turned up on HBO this spring, I couldn’t help recording it on my cable box DVR to save for a long, quiet evening at home. I watched it a few weeks later, as winter was turning to spring just the way it does in the movie’s opening credits. As the familiar music played, the memories started flooding back – and not just the names and the characters, the MacKenzies and the Harringtons and Dr. Rossi (Principal Rossi in the film).
Suddenly I remembered the scale model of the town I made out of cardboard during a summer vacation. My confusion one night when my mother speculated that Elliot Carson might be Allison’s father. (What I had been told was that you had to be married to have a baby, and when you were ready, God would send one. Constance and Elliot were not married.) My first exposure to the actress Ruth Warrick, who played a Mrs. Danvers sort of housekeeper not to be confused with Nellie Cross; later I would come to know her – and yes, in this order — as Phoebe Tyler on “All My Children” and the long-suffering wife of “Citizen Kane.” I remembered Allison’s exit from the series, when she cut off her trademark waist-length blond hair and walked away from a hospital, never to be seen again, right around the time Mia Farrow, who played her, married some old guy, a singer named Frank Sinatra. Maybe she was frightened off by the stern Nurse Choate, played by Erin O’Brien-Moore, whose younger self had played, in the movie, a controlling mother who chased Allison away from her son.
If this all seems rather circular, maybe that’s the nature of life, even one that moves from a small town to a big city, as Allison’s did – and mine. Thanks to the soaps, I came to New York already familiar with countless actors who had started out there (among them Christopher Reeve) or found steady work that subsidized theater careers (most notably Larry Bryggman of “As the World Turns”). The knowledge served me well on the culture desk of The New York Times. One night my boss called out, “Hey, some soap opera actress died. Do I have to get the obit in tonight?” “What’s her name?” I asked. “Ruth Warrick.” “Yes, you do.” The demise of one soap after another, from “Search for Tomorrow” in the 1980s (which I reported on page 1 of The Globe) to, most recently, ABC’s “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” is an incalculable loss to American pop culture.
The movie’s Allison eventually comes full circle, home to Peyton Place; the TV Allison never did, and it’s unlikely that I ever shall. (I did see Mia Farrow once in my favorite burger joint on the Upper West Side). “Somewhere along the line,” Allison asks Nellie, “doesn’t somebody get intelligent and realize the children have to grow up their own way?” Nellie answers: “The mind’s nothing to do with it. It’s your feelings. Kids get born, and you just worry about them, and you hope for them.” Whatever my mother hoped for me, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the life I’m living today (though I’m still using the dishes she got at the bank and the flatware for which she saved boxtops). Even so, she’s the one who supplied the matching set of Hartmann luggage I took off to college, acquired with – what else? – S&H Green Stamps. The heavy leather bags were fine for car travel, the only kind she knew, but not so practical for air travel, which has largely shaped my adult life. S&H Green Stamps have evolved into S&H Greenpoints – something like the frequent-flyer miles I save up obsessively, to redeem for travel instead of chairs. Anytime I feel like a visit home, both versions of “Peyton Place,” movie and TV, are available on Netflix.