When I was 14, I moved in with my recently widowed grandmother and her full-time maid. The west coast prep school my mother desperately wanted me to attend happened to be only five minutes from Mimi’s house, so I packed up my hockey stick, drawing supplies, books, swim goggles, and three dozen diaries, and off I went, while my mom, younger siblings, and step-dad stayed behind in rural Alabama.
It was intended to be a temporary arrangement for just a few months until my step-dad secured a job transfer and then the rest of the family would move out; I ended up living with Mimi for four years.
I adored Mimi, so although I missed my mom and the rest of my family, I was quite ecstatic to live in the spot where I previously only spent summers and holidays. Every day is a vacation in California, the cooperative weather winked at me, Yes, yes, tropical holiday weather in November, sure, why not? And shopping with my grandmother was like an extended birthday celebration every day—Need a new tennis racket? pair of shoes? silver bracelet? Sure, no problem. We’ll just bill it to your father.
Accounting practices aside, Mimi was a devoted matriarch. When I was not in school, she spent her hours shuttling me around to various activities, sleepovers, and sporting events, something I took for granted at the time, but now with two young sons that I ferry to and fro, I appreciate. The woman, at 67, was resilient. I am only 43, yet want to go sit in a corner and rock myself when I stop to think about the next decade or so I must commit to driving my children places.
More than a chauffeur service, Mimi could make me laugh. And vice-versa. She had a wry sense of humor, and I loved her because I felt that she was one of the few people who just “got” me. I did not have to explain myself to her—she just knew who I was and accepted me. It was also liberating to not share the limelight with my sister and brother; for once, it was all about me.
Steak for dinner? The maid can whip that up. You want to lay out by the pool for a few hours? What’s stopping you. You need $20 to go buy new records with your best friend Hope? Sure, and I’ll drive you. It was every teen girl’s fantasy: a dedicated adult at my beck and call.
If Mimi was accommodating to me, it was a two-way street. I would listen to her endless stories about her modeling days, movie star neighbors, three marriages, or African safaris over the hundredth game of Gin Rummy, Crazy Eights, or backgammon. I was thirsty for her attention, as she was mine.
There was, however, a crack in the veneer. Our mutual arrangement of peaceful domesticity was marred by the indisputable fact that Mimi despised 99.9% of the programming on TV, unless it was the boring 11 o’clock news. To the ninth grade version of myself, this was a devastating and almost unforgivable breach.
If she was out of the room for more than a second, then CLICK! on came an episode of Facts of Life, Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, or Too Close for Comfort. She hated them all.
“Gah, MOV, turn that garbage off! How can you watch this stuff? That’s not real laughter, you know. It’s canned. It’s a tape. It’s so fake.” She’d shake her head dismissively, wondering where she’d gone wrong. “Your mother trusts me to take care of you and make sure you do your homework, and then I walk in here and you have this,” here she’d gesture to Robin Williams or Ron Howard or whoever had the unfortunate timing of being on the screen at that moment, “this … this … wretched excuse for a show? When I was your age, we didn’t even have television, and thank goodness because there’s absolutely nothing worth watching. We listened to the radio. We had drama and comedy and westerns and mysteries …”
A smile would come across her powdered white face as she’d reminisce about the Golden Age of radio. “Those were stories. That was good writing. Nowadays, you can’t find that kind of quality entertainment because …”
“Señora, Señora,” the maid would come bustling in the room and pick up the remote control off the coffee table, “Your show on now. Es sick o’clock.”
Mimi would stop mid-sentence and lunge for the remote. Three’s Company.
“Come and ??? on our floor/ Take a step that is new / We’ve a lovable ??? that needs your face, / Three’s Company too/ Come and knock on our door/ We’ve been waiting for you/ Where the ??? are hers and hers and his …”
We’d both sing the theme song or at least pretend we knew the words we couldn’t quite decipher. This was in the days before TiVo and the Internet, when you could not so easily correct your musical deficiencies by finding out the actual words. It was our fate to sing the song wrong forever.
I don’t know why Mimi had a weak spot for Three’s Company. Perhaps goofy John Ritter reminded her of her late husband in his earlier years? Maybe sultry Suzanne Somers reminded her of herself as a young woman? Whatever the reason, we sat transfixed to the glass screen while Jack, Janet, and Chrissy played out their comical misunderstandings that were somehow always neatly resolved in precisely 22 minutes.
“Oh, Jack! I just love him!” Mimi would swoon at the first commercial break, completely forgetting her previous diatribe against TV in general and sitcoms in specific. “He is so much fun!” She’d clasp her wrinkled hands together as if she was planning a dinner party and was mentally reminding herself to include him on the guest list. You could not interrupt Mimi from 6 to 6:30, unless an earthquake hit, and probably not even then. “I have to find out what happened to Chrissy with that new boss of hers!” or “I hate that nurse Terri, why did they ever get rid of Chrissy’s cousin? What was her name again?” or “No, Jack, no! Don’t call Mr. Angelino back! He thinks you’re still at the restaurant!”
Like Mimi, I too was crazy about Three’s Company, the predictable plot, the familiar format, the easy comfort of a show that was merely about taking yourself out of your own head for thirty minutes and transporting yourself to a place of easy laughs. It was a silly show, and has been accused of being the same episode over and over. But it was our show.