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NOVEMBER 3, 2010 11:25AM

Queen For a Day

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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. 

 

 

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A bump for asking for what you need in life.
She would probably have hated it if she had to get it that way. I bet she was imagining what it would be like to be rescued, though......
You are such a gifted writer - it makes me so happy when I see a new post by you! This is wonderful! - Rated
What a beautiful slice of life story, Joan. I'm sorry for your mother's sadness. But I could smell the ironing and see the TV there in the basement with you. Thanks.
I loved that show.. I wanted the crown
rated with hugs
I think that you wanted something good for your mother. This brought back a few memories from long ago. I barely remember the show, just he crown and the fur......thanks for the memories.
This is all too familiar to me, no dirty laundry aired.. evah.. lots of ironing and appearances are crucial.
Wait a minute, are you sure we aren't sisters?????
An EP well-deserved, friend!
I watched that show on days I was ill and hime from elementary school and I watched it stupefied. It is the Paradigm. (And we know for what....) r.
So well written and poignant, Joan.
The moms in our Cold War, McCarthy Era generation had it rough. The ceiling wasn't glass then, it was steel. Stay home and iron like a good wifey. It was a very rare woman who could do the end-around and make choices for herself.
I never saw that show, but I'm glad you got what you wanted in life and deserve so well.
Rated with love.
I remember that show! I do! And wanting to be on it. But I also knew that there were millions of woman suffering in silence...wanting to be queens...unable to celebrate themselves in their real lives. Thank you for remembering the ones who won no crowns...but were still very much the queens of their domains, even if they didn't know it themselves...
I am on that davenport watching you watch your mother watch a program she had on only for the noise. A little girl watches her mother's sadness, a sadness that possibly no one else was allowed to see, and wants her mother to be queen for a day. If only a day wearing that crown and holding those roses would have opened her eyes to the pain her daughter bore. If only her eyes would have opened to the treasure her daughter was.
Very poignant-- you surreptitiously watching the show and observing your mother, and wishing for a crown for her--and your empathy for those in competition on TV.
Wow, how would your mother handle all of the laundry-airing on today's Idiot Box???
A sad tale-- you were a darling child, wanting your mother to have the Queen prize of all: Happiness...
With all the movies that are made and remade, I'm surprised this show hasn't been brought back. Sadly, there are many Americans who need "basics" to survive these days and society seems to take a perverse pleasure in other people's woes. A washing machine and dryer? A good meal would probably be enough to make a lot of people happy.
R
This is such a wonderful story. You were so full of insight at such a young age. We used to watch that show too and I couldn't believe those women could ever cry like they did, on TV no less. -R-
This was so well written. Many of us lived those same scenes, yet you were able to give them life. Thanks.
i knew a woman like your mother and, too, always wished she could have what she professed to want. but many decades of thinking about it have convinced me that she was cast in her mold of bitter martyr and wouldn't have been happy if all my wishes for her had come true. children, even unappreciated lovely ones, are hard-wired to keep wishing it, though. beautifully written, joanie; you got the push and the pull just right.
wonderful writing. i think our mothers were pals back in the day...well, no - my mom would never have "pals". they were certainly cut from the same cloth though. i can see that.
You are such a good writer. I was right there with you and I remember that show as a little girls too. My mom is a queen and she doesnt let me forget it. Not easy to live with a queen.
ow, damn you write well Joan
I'm a homemaker by choice and my husband never even questioned whether I should have his support with caring for our children and housework (since no one should work 24/7) as well as have a life and pursuits of my own. Best friends, equals with different roles in the family. I feel so sad for women, not so long ago, who weren't making a conscious choice, but falling into roles society decided on. I would have exploded. I guess many did in their own way.

Thank you for gently and skillfully shedding light on an important matter.
Yes, I remember that show, but I looked at it as comedy. The usual bedraggled woman comes on to say that everybody in her family is on their deathbeds and they give her a new washing machine and a lifetime supply of detergent.
Not to be off-point on your poignant and well written story, but I think there was a comedic aspect to that show. The idea of competing for the saddest story seems funny to me.
So dear and so sad. It is heartbreaking to stand sentry on another's misery, more so when they themselves cannot acknowledge it. It's like your heart has to work double time to process the sadness, find a home for it, heal it. It's tough also to understand that her pain is not your pain. You have such a precious hotline to that little girl sitting there, it's what you need to save her.
And I love your bump: asking for what you need in life. Such a tough one that.
Excellent storytelling as usual. I hope you know you have a memoir in you. Of course you know. I would buy it in a hot second!
"Live from the fabulous Moulin Rouge!" Oh, I remember.
Funny, at the time I thought it was perfectly natural for those
ladies to go on TV. I mean, how else were they going to get the washing machine, etc. that they needed? I only developed a sense of irony later in life.
This is sharp and vivid, Joanie. Loved it. I never saw the show but feel like I have through your eyes. My mother ironed a lot and said some of the same things. I had such an idealized vision of her and put her on a pedestal -- I thought she was a Queen -- until I turned into a teenager!
A story told so well. I remember this show. I seem to remember everybody winning a washer and dryer.
We wanted everything for our mothers, didn't we?

When I iron the t.v. is set to House Hunters International.
Congrats on the EP!
Mark Evanier, veteran television writer, has dubbed it "one of the most ghastly shows ever produced" and further stated it was "tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit."
I haven't thought of that show in years. You have such a vivid memory. I remember watching it, but have no recollection of what I was doing or thinking at the time. The no-airing-of-dirty-laundry, pursed lips and clicking of tongues pretty much ruled our house as well. Strange, stifling way to grow up.Very nice piece.
oh, i had forgotten that show. it WAS uncomfortable to see the clash of the crown and cape against their housedress. you remember it very well, and I appreciate your telling the story. your mother may have let you feel you were a disappointment to her. but i feel you are anything but that to me.
Surely you're too young to remember that show! Great summing up of details and the conflicting emotions, especially in an era when airing "dirty" laundry was not done 24/7 by anyone and everyone like it seems to be nowadays.
A daughter with a generous heart like yours is the best gift any mother could wish for. Too bad yours didn't see what she had.
She had prizes she never appreciated. And of course you still wanted her to be Queen. Your heart is like that -- full of gifts.
There's an Italian saying that goes, "God gives biscuits to those who won't eat them." You were your mom's biscuit. How sad for the both of you she could not see the prizes in front of her. Beautiful written, poignant. R
We're all queens and goddesses and pirates - I refuse to think other.
Joanie, you must have gotten your heart from your father! Even with all the nasty things your mother did over the years, you still wanted her to have what she wanted. If only she could have figured that out.

Lezlie
The third paragraph from the bottom - I know that woman. She ironed my school clothes for years. And my mom absolutely, positively can't know about my blog, for the exact same reason - you don't tell anyone anything about your family business, your feelings or your politics!
Ah, Joan, this is soo beautifully written & insightful, it makes me ache with melancholy sadness (while at the same time the writer in me admires the buildup of emotion & killer last paragraphs). So I'm reading it, all drawn into your mom's life & envisioning every detail & even sighing aloud a couple of times (while another part of me is going Wow! she nailed it!) If there was an Applause Meter for excellent writing, this piece would have it going full tilt.

(I used to be bizarrely fascinated with that show, too -- the tension-inducing applause meter,the housedresses & the damned crown & roses. Watching it as a kid, I always got a sick feeling in my stomach. It was like a real life soap opera, & I always liked the fake ones best.)
Oh, I remember that show! You brought it beautifully and painfully back to life with this amazing, sad yet generous glimpse into your mother's --and Middle America's-- home life. Didn't they put a fancy cape around the winner with some kind of black and white fur around the edge?
i have to admit that i liked linkletter better
wow- I never heard of that show before--sounds like the dawn of reality tv before they thought to follow the women around with cameras.
I wonder what your mom was really thinking while watching, why this was the show that was her exception...just a chance to feel better in comparison?
anyway, very interesting post--will make for a great chapter in your book!
So good, Joan. I remember the show so well and the sound of an iron hissing...girls really watch their mothers closely, don't they? Wonderful story.
A sad slice-of-life story by a sweet daughter. The iron hissing at the end was a nice touch.
A big tick and a Kookaburra stamp Joan.
Deft touch here, Joan.

George Carlin, back in the '60s, had a routine making fun of daytime TV that included a spoof of Queen for a Day. The winning contestant, who faces a litany of travails, is asked what she wants to celebrate her crowning. Her answer: "a set of golf clubs."
Thank you to everyone for reading and commenting. I would agree the show was horrible, really. Most of the "prizes" were what the sponsors were giving away. Cartons of "Old Gold" cigarettes, some kind of laundry soap (of course) etc.
Even as a child I knew it was shlocky. I just wanted my mother to be happy too.
A good read, Joan. My mom ironed and watched soaps. Years later, when I reflected on this, I thought she experienced "southern guilt." In "Walking Across Egypt," by Clyde Edgerton, the main southern character gets stuck in her rocking chair during a soap. Her big fear is someone will come to her home, catch her with the soap on, and the dishes in the sink undone. It sounds like their was a deep vein running through your mom's daily review, and somehow, you absorbed the poignant depth of your mom's exhale.
Should read, "there was a deep vein..." Sorry, coffee needed before typing. I also wished while reading that your mom turn off the box and look to you.
The more I read about her, the more I can't help but picture the character Mary Tyler Moore played in "Ordinary People". Very well written, Joanie.
Retraction: I watched an episode on youtube. Really nothing funny about it. The host was pure smarm. Some of the contestants were service wives who need a hand while their husbands were away. Awful.
Damon, thanks. The whole thing was sad and cringe-worthy. The host was a jerk. And prizes includes cartons of cigarettes. Depressing part of the '60's popular culture.
Funny...I remember the show...along with Art Linkletter's House Party for some strange reason...but I didn't remember why the contestants were selected. I do remember the schlocky ending. I think they played Pomp & Circumstance as they did the crown thing.

Well written. Thank you.
I remember the show well. Along with her daytime soaps, it was a program my mom watched. She always made her life sadder than it truly was. I don't remember wishing she could be on the show. I do remember the ironing board and iron while she lay on the couch watching her programs. I know what I need in life, right now there is just no use asking. This was, as said, beautifully written Joan. Another masterpiece!
I'm still trying to figure out what a "davenport" is.


{[R]}
This was one of the most fascinating shows of its time. I remember it well and with still some giggles of the absurdity of it all.
This show always made me too sqeemy to watch. The women who did not win broke my heart. They gathered the courage to parade their life losses about, then lost yet again, too cruel. No need to witness that.
Every time I read one of your pieces, I am in awe of how expertly you draw me into your world. I smelled the steam coming out of your mother's iron. Your truly have a gift for writing.
@iq, Mary Lin and her ilk will not leave me alone until I buy one of those face-lift bar contraptions. Btw, "Joani" is just fine...
I never saw the show but it seems sad to me. Not only all those women trying to outdo each other with their pitifulness, but especially at your young age hurting so much for your mother, being so aware that you wanted her to be "Queen For a Day."
I am glad I didn't miss this. I see the love and understanding you still had for your mom even with her inability to see the beauty in you.
Yep. I remember this show fondly too...the faux ermine robe and crown askew at the end...and oh so many tears. I loved it. I also love remembering the smell of damp laundry and the steam iron and the sizzly sound it initially made. My applause-o-meter always goes crazy when I read your work. Clink to what we most need. Happy EP. Love the mom views. xo thanks!
Oh the memories! I remember being glued to Queen for a Day, but I had to do the some of the ironing -- my mom wouldn't let me sit on the kitchen stool to iron -- that would make me lazy. My ironing duties included sheets, hankies and my dad's boxer shorts and undershirts. I ached for those women -- and like you, always, always voted for the one with the "crippled child." My mom, like yours, would have pulled her own fingernails out before appearing on Queen for a Day ... You etched another long-forgotten childhood memory gracefully and poignantly. Thank you! I'm looking forward to reading other posts by you -- it's what I love about OS!