I’ve been thinking about soap operas lately. I haven’t watched one in years, but when I was growing up, two things were true of every elementary school girl I knew: We’d all picked whether we liked Bo or Luke Duke, and we all could talk about what happened yesterday on Days of Our Lives. Bo and Hope. Marlena and Roman. Patch and Kayla. (Sometimes I find myself wondering just how many people learned the ASL sign for “courage” from Patch and Kayla–I can’t even remember which one of them lost their hearing. But I know we girls flashed the sign at school all the time, stunned by its emotional impact. The romantic DEPTH of it. For a ten-year-old. )
Later, in college, I did some B-level paper for a psychology class about television as the “communal fire” of our culture. In my childhood, soap operas were some genuine form of community. Among little girls, among their mothers, among their grandmothers. At Thanksgiving, usually me and all my relatives–no other kids, but plenty of senior citizens–would retire to the den with stuffed bellies and catch each other up on the villains and heroes of Days. (That’s what we called it. Just Days. ) Some of my fondest summer memories are of sitting in the recliner in my grandmother’s house while she brought me a tomato sandwich and iced tea and we both settled down to watch the show from 12:30 and 1:30, while she’d complain about the sex and I’d wait for the sex.
But I outgrew Days. I really fell in love–in college–with another soap opera, and another couple in particular: Another World. Carl and Rachel. Charles Keating, who played Carl, died last week, and I’ve found he’s on my mind frequently. I wonder how many people can say their first real, gut-wrenching introduction to poetry–to the power of it and how different that power is from fiction–came from a soap opera. Carl and Rachel were an older couple–fifties, I guess–and they liked reading and art and poetry. I have a great memory of them sitting on a panel of soap opera actors on some morning show, and there was a selection of clips, one a very stupid one from Days of Our Lives involving a guy running an ice cube down a woman’s neck. The ice-cube dude said something unintelligible about how sexy ice is. Then there was a clip of Carl quoting poetry, and, when the clip was over, Charles Keating leaned over and said, “There’s your ice cube, my boy.”
There was always something so wonderfully Shakespearean about Keating, whether he was a spectacularly malevolent villain or a wooing beau. (“Beau” feels like the right word there.) He and Victoria Wyndham went on the road with an original play they’d put together called Couplets, where they read from poems and Shakespeare. My friend, Tina, and I drove hundreds of miles to see them….more hundreds than necessary because I am not great with directions and confused my interstates. I-59, not I-65. My bad.
But that show in Knoxville, Tenn., was my first introduction to ee cummings (I went home and bought his collected works) and May Swenson (“All That Time,” still one of my favorites) and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Stoddard King and Muriel Rukeyser and plenty of others. And, then the next year, we went back and saw Keating and Wyndham in Love Letters, where I sobbed from beginning to end. I was so enamored that I wrote Victoria Wyndham a letter, and she wrote me back. Very sweetly.
I loved those people.
A part of me still does. A part still loves the idea of spending summer days at my grandmother’s, knowing exactly what 12:30 to 1:30 was going to bring. A bigger part still deeply appreciates two soap actors–and a friend who did not yell at me for getting on the wrong interstate–who left me with a handful of poems I still quote to myself. And read to myself. And to anyone else who will listen.
And that is what I got out of soap operas.