She called it "the idiot box" but my mother made an exception for the show,"Queen For a Day," while she ironed the laundry. She ironed without ever taking her eyes off the contestants. She offered the same comment every time she watched. They couldn't pay me to go on that show.
My mother was big on outer appearances. Things had to look right. People especially had to look right. Too short or too tall was not good. Cheap shoes, dirty fingernails and using a toothpick in public were signs of poor upbringing. And telling America why you needed a washer and dryer (your husband lost his job) or your son needed a wheelchair, (cerebral palsy) was unthinkable. You could tell my mother she would be boarding the space shuttle tomorrow. It was the same idea.
I'm not really watching, she'd say. I just have it on for the noise. But in reality, my mother was glued to the old Zenith black and white TV. Airing your business, your most personal business was something she could not imagine.
The women looked about the same age as my mother and shared the same grim expression. Their hair appeared to be fresh from a Toni home perm and their dresses were what my mother called "house dresses." Not for wearing out of the house, she would say.
I sat on the striped davenport in the basement pretending to read. If I appeared too interested, my mother might send me upstairs.
The show opened the same way every time. Jack Bailey introduced each woman and described her tale of woe as they nodded and looked terribly uncomfortable. I felt sorry for the women. My mother, if she did feel sorry for them, masked her compassion with contempt. I don't understand airing your dirty laundry for a prize, she'd say.
I especially liked the part when the woman with the most pitiful story was chosen. Each woman was rated by the "Applause Meter." The one who received the most applause won the title of "Queen For a Day." Generally I chose along the same lines as the audience. I didn't care so much about the woman who had a big family and needed bunk beds. I went for the crippled child stories. The one in particular I remember was the one where the mother asked on behalf of her son who was "crippled up with palsy." I was near tears during that episode. My mother's face remained unchanged.
This contestant eventually beat out the other not as pitiful contestants and went on to win that wheelchair plus a load of other gifts. I knew my mother would never go on the show but I wanted her to. To me, the winner looked beautiful and victorious, albeit a little uncomfortable. She was given a cape with a fur collar and a crown. My mother groaned every time at that part. They are making a fool out of her, she'd say.
Maybe, I thought. But she did get what she came for. What was a little discomfort when you stood a chance of getting what you needed? She risked the contempt of the other unhappy housewives watching her at home as she stood on national television with a bad perm and told us what she needed.
I'd move onto the floor to get a better look at all her queenly splendor as they placed a dozen roses in her arms. I knew what sadness looked like. The woman ironing in the basement beside me had it. And the "Queen For A Day" had it too. But the queen walked away with the prizes. I wanted my mother to have all those prizes.
I knew my mother too well to think she would ever let the outside world think her world wasn't perfect. But sitting in the basement on laundry day watching my mother iron with her lips pursed in disgust, I felt sorrier for her than I did for any of those ladies "making fools of themselves."
At the end of every show, the announcer said the same thing.
"This is Jack Bailey, wishing we could make every woman a queen, for every single day!"
I watched my mother turn off the iron, letting the steam escape into the air. I tried to imagine what would be my mother's platform. I knew it would have something to do with marrying the wrong man and having children who were a disappointment.
Maybe Queen For A Day wasn't the right show for those kinds of woes.
I still wanted her to be queen.