Friday, October 5, 2012
Queen for a Day My beautiful cousin Nancy and I were talking the other day, having a nice canter down memory lane as we so often do, and we remembered the 1950s television show, “Queen for a Day.” We both watched this tear-jerker show, which some have called a forerunner to today’s reality shows. The idea was that a few women would be interviewed by host Jack Bailey, and the one who told the story that got the loudest applause as measured on the “Applause-o-meter” was crowned Queen for a day, crowned with a glittering tiara, wrapped in a sable-trimmed velvet robe, seated on a grand throne and given a dozen long-stemmed roses, as well as given many prizes, starting with whatever she had specifically requested – such as a new wheelchair for her disabled child. Yes, the stories were sob stories, and the winner was the one who made the studio audience of women cry the most and applaud the hardest. The other contestants were also given prizes for being on the show, so none of them went away empty-handed, which makes me feel better about the show all these years later. I suppose many people would now and did then consider the show maudlin and manipulative in the extreme, which it was, exploiting the grief and misery of women in order to sell advertising. But that is a grown up retrospective on my part. As children, Nancy and I both watched the show in wide-eyed wonder. Nancy watched it with her mom, Chick, who was my father’s baby sister. Chick had multiple sclerosis and by the time we were small children it had progressed to the point that she was in a wheelchair full time. Nancy had only part of a normal childhood. She had to be home after school and in the summer to take care of her mom and help her make dinner. Chick died when Nancy and I were 16. Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a sneaky disease, and it goes at different rates for different people. Some people live with it for decades without much discernible effect. Some, like Chick, are quickly disabled and die within 15 or 20 years after diagnosis, when the nervous system finally fails to function enough to support life. What is it? Now we say it is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, and damages the myelin sheath which covers nerves, causing nerve impulses to slow down or stop. I have heard it compared to the fraying of the covering of an electrical cord, a metaphor that was more accessible back when electrical cords were covered with woven fabric. No one knows what causes it, although there are a lot of theories. There is no cure, although I’ve been hearing people talking about searching for a cure since I was a small child looking at my aunt in a wheelchair. People are doing research, looking for a cure, constantly. Nancy told me that she and her mother would sometimes play Queen for a Day. “It was probably on summer days. We’d do our work in the morning, and then we’d play.” Nancy would make a tiara out of cardboard and cover it with aluminum foil, and use a wooden kitchen spoon for her microphone. “Mom would roll up close to me in her wheelchair, and I’d ask her questions, and she’d make up stories. It was different every time. She’d maybe say, ‘We can’t afford to buy food for the kids,’ and say she had ten kids. She’d pour on the sob story. Then we’d do a drum roll and announce that Mom was Queen for a Day.” Nancy would crown her with the foil crown, wrap a blanket around her mom as her royal robe, and hand her the wooden spoon as a scepter instead of the dozen roses. Nancy would hand Chick a piece of paper upon which Nancy had written the prizes being awarded. “Then when we were done, we’d say, okay, let’s play cards now, or maybe it would be time to make dinner. “The last couple of years of Mom’s life, when she was bedridden, we reversed the roles. She’d be in bed and I’d roll in in the wheelchair. In those days I’d come lie on the bed next to her, and we’d talk, and nap together. Those were great bonding times.” So this week we’ve been telling each other, “You are Queen for a Day!” and we laugh. We live our own hard stories, as all the rest of you do, and we tell those stories to each other, and we applaud each other’s courage in the face of life’s random insults. We agree to meet for lunch, to go to Ivar’s for chowder, or to Gale’s in Capitola for Marion berry pie. And we laugh some more. Ah, it’s good to be the queen.