Saturday September 29, 2012

My Aunt Marlene is tall and thin, with large light eyes and a big, easy smile. She is one of the great talkers in our family, able to discourse at length about gardening; the weather; the best coffee; flying from Boston to Florida; children’s toys; shoes; ocean tides; herbal remedies; family histories going back three generations; dinner; and so on.

She cooks meals out of Mayberry, steaks and sweet potatoes and grilled fish. She predicts needs for fresh towels, glasses of water, extra pairs of socks, beach chairs. She cared for her disabled son all of his life, and now, when she sees a butterfly dip and swim past her back porch, she says, bright and matter-of-fact, "Well, here’s Jim just saying hello."

She is close with her equally tall and gorgeous daughter, Elaine. With Jerry, her second husband, she became my grandmother’s caregiver and companion in the last years of her life, while also working full-time. In the best, most noble and loving way, Marlene keeps house, and she keeps her family warm.

She also loves zombies on television. She adores crime procedurals. Horror, bloodshed, cruelty, brutality on the small screen -- she eats it right up. When my husband and I recently visited Marlene and Jerry at their cozy cottage in Woods Hole, Mass., we sat around the dining room table talking TV.

I have always turned to television to help me through conversations, even with people I dearly love.


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Some folks have the gift of nattering until a connection is made, or not, it doesn’t matter, because here’s another person to say lots of little nothings to again.

This is not me unless I’ve drunk several cups of coffee and my neurons are firing faster than my self-consciousness can police them. Generally I am stiff and over-smiley, tetchy and bored but only because I cannot for the life of my imagination think of the next right thing to say.

The introduction of "The Simpsons" or "Pee-wee’s Playhouse" or "General Hospital" or any show is a tremendous relief. My now-soulmate and I can chew over scenes, gossip about actors, reference movies that reference books that reference the shows. It’s a vast and fertile common ground, if unoriginal and crass, and it feels good to share unless we hit the "Real Housewives" series, and then once more I don’t have anything to say.

Marlene is both coolly confident and goofily eager when she talks about her shows. During dinner, we traded dirt on "Revenge," "Once Upon a Time," "Southland," and "Modern Family." (Both fans of the first two, neither fans of the last, split on the third.)

Jerry speared a piece of pre-chocolate-cake cantaloupe. "I’ll tell you," he said. "Mar watches the foulest, most violent stuff on TV. Such a gentle person, and she’ll watch a person stab a zombie in the heart."

No, Jer," Marlene said, waving away his words. "You kill a zombie by chopping off its head or shooting it in the brain. Or burning, I suppose. You could put it through a wood chipper."

Jerry and Elaine, who had joined us for dessert, looked at her with familiar bewilderment and laughed. Some conversations are easy, the scripts long ago hammered out, the jokes as comforting as they are old.

"The gentlest person," said Elaine. "And she’ll watch anything with blood spurting from wounds."

Marlene crossed her long arms and legs against the night chill. "I love ‘The Walking Dead.’"

Bob bounced our baby on his lap and fed him a bit of melon. "Yeah, I didn’t warm so much to it. ‘Falling Skies,’ now that was awesome." He looked at me, reading from our own script. "Becky doesn’t like that one"

I shook my head. "I don’t go for the aliens and guns."

Marlene slapped the table. "Yes, I love ‘Falling Skies.’ Can you believe we have to wait another year for the next season?"

She and Bob started riffing on the show. I held his hand. I was happy to listen. Jerry finished his melon and Elaine played with the baby and his wooden hedgehog toy. The talk wound to the movie "Zombieland," to "Criminal Intent," to "Sons of Anarchy." It was a boring and terrifically comfortable time.

My grandmother lived in the cottage until she died in 2010. She moved there year-round in 1994, after my grandfather’s death; before that, the house was their summer haven. Grandpa would work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in town, and Grandma would worry and feed the visiting grandchildren animal crackers.

In the years of her widowhood, I tried to visit once a month. After dinner, when each of us had changed into pajamas, I’d knock on her door and climb into bed with her for an hour or two of television.

We’d start with Turner Classic movies or PBS documentaries, but Grandma was always drawn to crime shows, inevitably with big sex scenes, and I’d try to read a page or two of the book I brought as back-up until the commercial break.

"Want to watch something else?" She’d ask, her thumb hovering over the remote control buttons. She liked the volume high.

"Sure, Grandma," I’d say, and she’d change the channel to another blasting crime show.

"I’m so glad you’re here, darling," she’d say. "This is cozy, isn’t it?"

"It is," I’d say. She sometimes fell asleep holding my hand. Those were my favorite conversations.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer.