by Lisa Romeo
Samantha came first, or Hazel. Or Patty-and-Cathy and Laura. All dear friends I had long left behind, but who returned when I was missing something I did not know I was missing. We gather now a few late nights every week, girls-night-out inside my quiet house, enabled by nostalgic networks like AntennaTV that mete out addictive hits in 30-minute episodes.
When Hazel the maid galumphs across the screen, red hair, saucy language, spinster status, she is my Aunt Mary, an old maid (but nobody’s maid). I lived for sleepovers in her small apartment, the one above the shoe store, so I could hear her strong opinions, listen to her swear; so we could cook and dance together around her own living room where the TV dominated.
Samantha Stevens bewitches, that 1960s housewife whose blonde hair, pug nose, cheerful banter, lilting voice, all belong to my mother, who I am having trouble remembering clearly. But I do remember Mom’s perky clothes and positive demeanor, so much like Sam’s, were what I admired and what I wanted to be like (and knew I couldn’t). And there’s Darren reading the paper and wearing cardigans, baffled by his wife, abhorring and adoring his mother-in-law, Endora.
It’s all familiar in that pop color way, down to the orange and white tile tray on Darren’s desk exactly like the one where I now have my keys, which sat on our mid-century modern coffee table in the 1960s and ’70s.
When my nocturnal nostalgia happens, TV friends reunite and episodes unfurl, as heat pings through our old-house pipes, lamplight traces photo collages from too many wakes that hang on my walls. TV that entertained me as a kid, made me cringe when I caught an odd episode as young adult, now grabs me: powerful, insistent. I scoop ice cream, burrow under a fuzzy blanket, and drift.
Some nights, to an improbable island where The Professor is my father quietly making do. Will the pedal-powered pineapple gadget work? Like Dad, he’s hopeful it will, pragmatic in failure, good-natured if a crew-mate wrecks it. I love his positive attitude, like the one Dad encouraged me to develop. I didn’t listen, then.
My sister Cathy, older by a decade, shared more than a name with the genteel TV Cathy, rascally Patty’s identical cousin on The Patty Duke Show. Like her doppelganger, my Cathy was, still is, soft-spoken and kind; I was, still am, rash and rude Patty. How I wanted to be Cathy, wanted people to say we were alike. But she was pretty, I was cute; she was sensible, me silly; she’s forever graceful, I’m still clumsy after all these years.
Then, my sister morphed into Laura Petrie, gorgeous, flirty, fashionable, loyal, and funny. Not like me in my gangly, loud, opinionated manner.
Once, rerun networks were just “old TV,” there to entertain while scrolling for anything better, something to show my kids who’d laugh for five seconds, then walk out of the room, heads bent over screens. But at some point—perhaps two years ago during the winter of my hobbled knee, or maybe the year before that, the one with the three bouts of pneumonia, or the first winter the world I saw no longer felt like the one I knew—I began to linger. Then to seek out those old shows. Slowly, I understood: I was revisiting a time when I had a beautiful mother who walked this earth, a time when a cool aunt waited for her pimply chubby niece on Saturday nights, a time when a kind father never ran out of time for me, when my lovely now-67-year-old sister was as fresh and young as Patty and as unlined and peachy as Laura Petrie.
I’m revisiting, even more than all of them—myself.
On those chill nights, after I’ve spooned the last of the butter pecan, long after I should be in bed, I stay, extending our visit. The quality is poor—scenery painted on cardboard, repeating guest actors (one week an uncle, the next a judge), the women either housebound or silly, like the storylines. But they whisper the world I do and don’t remember, that disappeared world, still lives, somewhere in time, and I can go there on occasion and feel like someone I also remember. On a chilly lay-a-bed morning, when my body admits its age, when I’m postponing the start of the day, with one click, for a half-hour, that other world returns, alive, available, amen.