by Kathryn H. Ross
I try to avoid primetime when the reruns come on. I can’t stomach them anymore. In the early years we used to watch it a couple times a week, every episode, even the reruns. Ma would call us into the living room Friday nights when it was new no matter what we were doing—homework, showering, taking a shit, even—and make us gather ‘round the TV to see Dad spew life lessons to little Jimmy Nickels, the child star of the decade and his TV son who was always getting into well-meaning trouble. We soon learned not to make plans those nights, refuse invitations, skip shows, postpone dates if we had to. Dad came first.
At the end of each show we’d discuss what we liked about it, talk about how great Dad was, swap ideas about what would happen next week. You might think Dad could have just told us the storylines ahead of time, but he refused. Said it ruined the integrity of the art, put us higher than the rest of America, and nobody, nobody, was higher than anyone else. The truth probably had more to do with the station. His scripts were kept in a safe and were only handled when Dad was shut up in his study on off seasons. He’d emerge for meals and bathroom breaks, to grab a beer, but he was always passing through, always busy. Whole days would go by and I wouldn’t see him, even when he was home, just down the hall. Sometimes my little brother and I would listen at his door, hear him rehearsing his lines in a vibrato that bordered on melodramatic, but onscreen he was always perfect. Always tight. Loveable. Relatable.
When he was around he’d mostly talk about how he really was like a parent onset. The parent. Giving the child actors, Jimmy and whatever kids were playing his friends or love interests, advice. Good kids. Sweet kids. Real smart kids. He liked talking to them, seeing what made them tick, giving them encouragement when life and television got too overwhelming. It was like he really was their dad sometimes, he said. Always smiling when he said that, little twinkle in his eye.
After the first season the show really took off. Dad said they were moving production out to California thanks to the budget increase and for a while all of us kids were excited about living in La La Land. My sisters dreamed about being discovered on the street, my brother started waxing poetic about the ocean and learning to surf. I had a dumb dream about joining a band—dumb because I didn’t play any instruments back then and can’t hold a tune to save my life. Still it was LA where dreamers went and made it big, and we already had a foot in the door thanks to Dad. Dad and his talent, Dad and his contacts, Dad and his lucky break that would sweep us all into stardom.
Call it a shock when Dad went out to Cali without us and we stayed in the Midwest because it ‘made the most sense for the family.’ Ma talked to each us individually, processed our disappointment and told us patiently that there was no way we could have picked up our lives to follow Dad. My oldest sister had a year of high school left, my younger sister was just starting. My little brother was finally improving in school and we didn’t want to disrupt that, did we? I had two more years of high school myself, friends, a job. I was becoming someone and life was already so full of changes—we didn’t have to start them now. Let life be normal until it’s not. Then? It was up to me. I could do whatever I wanted.
‘But what about you?’ I’d asked Ma during our meeting. ‘Don’t you want to be with him?’
I remember she had this funny look when I said that, her eyes were real hard and a little bloodshot. Years later I realized she was trying not to cry and, considering everything, that breaks my heart. If I’d known then I would have stopped talking, maybe just held her. But I was a kid, and my therapist says I need to forgive myself for that.
‘I have my students and this house and all of you to take care of,’ she’d said. ‘Of course I want to be with him but it’s just not practical. Besides, great love survives great distance. Daddy’s doing this for us.’
It was true, of course. Since the show had taken off and money was coming in, Dad had taken care of us. Moved us into a new house with enough bathrooms, got Mom a nice new car that didn’t break down every couple of weeks, bought the girls some new dresses. He got me a new bike and some games for my brother, and for a while all these things were enough.
‘But you could have new students, we can make new friends, start at new schools,’ I’d said. Didn’t she understand this? Didn’t Dad? People did it all the time, dropped old lives and picked up new ones, followed loved ones to far off places.
Ma just shook her head and said I didn’t understand—that I couldn’t, I was just a kid. But she was a lot older and wiser, and so was Dad, and didn’t I know they would always do what was best for us, for the family?
We watched the Christmas Special all together—Dad included. The show was on a break for the holidays and they’d already filmed some episodes for the New Year so Dad was home with us and for a few days he felt a little like a stranger until he didn’t. We sat around the TV and watched as Dad took Jimmy Nickels to see Santa Claus even though Jimmy insisted he was too old for all that. Later in Jimmy’s bedroom Dad explained how being a parent was the most beautiful and painful thing in the world: watching your child grow into a new person year after year, learning to understand and love that person, trying your best to keep up, feeling like you were always left behind no matter what, but knowing that was just the nature of things. It was a beautiful speech; Dad said he’d improvised most of it, which won him glowing looks and a hug and kiss each from my sisters. I wanted to hug him, too, but I stayed sitting on the floor, wondering if that was really how it was, if I’d feel that way about my own kid one day. Never happened, which is fine. Jimmy told Dad that, yeah, he was growing up, but he’d always be his son and in some ways he’d always be the same, and they hugged it out and exchanged ‘I love yous’ and Ma cried. They didn’t mention Jesus because it wasn’t that type of show, but it got the job done: warm fuzzies and satisfied smiles all around the room. Christmas morning it was just us and Ma; Dad was sleeping in because he was still a little jetlagged, and this year Santa hadn’t taken a bite out of the cookies, but we, like Jimmy, were too old for that stuff anyway, so it was okay.
Dad was gone before Groundhog Day on a new schedule, had given us all swift kisses as he and Ma left for the airport. When she got back from dropping him off, she went to her room for a long time. My brother wanted to listen at the door to see if she was okay, but I told him she was probably just sleeping and to let her rest, and so we did.
That year there was a phone call, and we all heard Ma crying from down the hall. My oldest sister shepherded all of us into her room and put on a movie. It was a little while before I’d noticed she’d left us. Under the guise of going to the bathroom I heard her and Ma in Ma’s bedroom talking in hushed voices and Ma was still crying and saying she just couldn’t believe it. The night before we’d watched a rerun of the show and saw Dad and his TV wife and Jimmy on a summer camping trip where Jimmy had gotten lost and Dad’s TV wife had cried uncontrollably into his shoulder and he’d held her so tenderly and when they found Jimmy she’d kissed Dad full on the lips while they all shared a group hug.
Dad’s TV wife was beautiful, and I’d never met her. She was tall and slender and had pretty brown eyes and wore clothes that complemented her figure. It would have been fitting if Dad had left us for her—or maybe I could have understood it better and not been so surprised. But that’s not what happened. He had an affair with some production assistant and she was pregnant, and they were living together in his flat in LA and he’d only told Ma when she’d called to say hello and tell him how my brother had said we should go camping this summer, just like the show.
We stayed in the house until my oldest sister and I were out of high school, and then Ma sold it and bought something a little smaller in another city away from everyone who had known us and Dad. I stayed at the house for one summer before I went off to college, and my oldest sister got married pretty quickly and was whisked away to the east coast. My other sister and brother were still with Ma, and over the next few years they became a tight unit of three, growing together while I was away learning whatever I was learning.
When we were all grown our half-sibling was about seven and Dad and the production assistant had been married just as long and none of us had met. Dad was America’s favorite father, now. Jimmy Nickels was all grown up too, his character off to college because the real Jimmy had run into some not-so-well-meaning trouble, but the show’s ratings were too good to cancel so they’d plodded on without him for a while. When the show finally finished Jimmy was clean and came back for the finale and we all crowded around the television to watch Dad one last time and Ma cried and went to her room before the episode was even over.
I had one of my nieces in my arms and so my sister went to check on Ma and her husband shut off the TV for us.
‘I never really liked this show, if I’m being honest,’ he said after a moment but none of us answered him. My little brother went out for a smoke and I held on to my niece and tried not to think about how Dad’s last line in the show was, ‘You’ll always be my favorite family.’
There are just reruns now. One of the great American classics. Humor, heart, a strong family unit. One night I woke up and my TV was on playing an old show and I had a panic attack right there in the bed. I would have called Ma if she were around, would have picked up the phone in a second. But I’m grateful I couldn’t because it was embarrassing. Grown man in his house crying over his daddy on the TV. What would Ma have thought of me?
A couple of weeks ago Dad died and it broke Hollywood’s heart. He was a good age for it and went pretty peacefully considering he’d been sick. His production assistant had called each of us and my oldest sister was the only one who answered, but it was pointless. Star like that dies and the whole universe knows, so we didn’t need her to tell us. But maybe she was feeling a little lonely or a little guilty, or maybe we were the only one’s who could really get her pain. I sent her a card after the funeral that said I was sorry for the loss and told her not to write back, only because I know I can’t keep that up, pretend it’s okay, and my therapist says it’s all right to be honest about things that feel mean.
It was probably hard for her too those few days after when Dad and Jimmy Nickels and his pretty TV wife were all over everyone’s screens as a tribute to his life and legacy. There were interviews, too, from Jimmy and the TV wife and other industry people who had known him. I didn’t turn the TV on that whole week. Didn’t even look at my phone. And I only cried when I thought of Ma and how she probably would have called us all together to watch the tributes and interviews and reruns because he was still our father and the show was good and wholesome and true. And I would have gone, would have done it for Ma. Would have sat through the finale again and watched Dad take his bow. You’ll always be my favorite family.
Kathryn H. Ross adores cats, warm baths, and Daniel Radcliffe films. Her debut book, Black Was Not A Label (2019), was recently published with Orange County Indie Publisher PRONTO and she holds a BA and MA in English and Writing. Her work ranges from sentimental and absurd shorts and poetry to lamentation essays about living as a young black woman in America.
Read her at speakthewritelanguage.com