9.18.2009

#21 Better Late Than Never

Better Late Than Never
by Paula Johnson

Matilda Bishop was lucky. As the nanny for a family who had managed to hang on to most of the trappings of wealth during the Depression, she received a small salary, a room of her own, and Sundays off. It was heaven compared to her upbringing on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

The baby was napping and Mrs. Spencer was at her bridge game one afternoon when Mattie wandered into the living room and turned on the Philco. She turned the dial until a deep, comforting voice commanded her attention. The Reverend Dr. John Ruthledge was speaking, but this wasn't a sermon. It was "The Guiding Light." She didn't even hear the children's noisy arrival from school.

The eighteen-year-old started giving her young charges an afternoon snack to keep them busy during the broadcast. Of course, that meant involving the cook, and soon the aptly named Mrs. Baker was hooked on the goings-on in the fictional Five Points, Illinois.

She and Matilda gossiped about the characters as if they were fascinating neighbors. One day they didn't notice the gardener (who was the cook's husband) in the kitchen until he made the mistake of speaking.

"Calvin, hush," hissed Mrs. Baker. He helped himself to a glass of lemonade and listened. Thereafter, he got thirsty each day at precisely the moment his wife turned on the Bakelite radio in her spotless kitchen.

In four years, Matilda had saved enough money to put herself through college. "Better late than never," she told Mrs. Baker on one summer day in 1941. Their conversation ended when their show's theme music started.

That August Mattie boarded a train for the University of Michigan. The Spencers took her to the station and the children presented her with a clumsily wrapped box containing a portable radio. She didn't cry until the train was in motion.

She met Dot and Barbara on her first day and quickly discovered they shared a devotion to "The Guiding Light."

Her first semester was winding down when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Mattie made it through another semester, and then heard about the new Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. She and her friends rushed to join. At 22, Mattie was the only one who met the age requirement.

"It's not fair," wailed Dot, "you'll have all the men to yourself for a full year!"

"War is hell," replied Mattie with a grin.

Her friends went home for the summer, and Matilda headed to Iowa for WAAC training. Her first year in the Army flew by and she was happy to spot a familiar face.

"Better late than never," she said in greeting. "Where's Dot?"

"Married and expecting," said Barbara. "But my brother's here—somewhere."

Matilda was in no hurry to meet Stanley, a fellow who had tormented her friend until the day he left home. She pictured a brute with a sneer, and was tongue-tied when introduced.

"Stanley is a dead ringer for Gregory Peck," Mattie announced later.

"That's just the uniform. He's a complete dunderhead," Barbara assured her.

A month later, Matilda was assigned to Burma. She gave Barbara her little radio in exchange for mailed summaries of "The Guiding Light." She received mail in three countries before returning Stateside in 1945 to finish college. Barbara had decided on a major—and married him, so her brother Stanley returned the radio.

Seven months later, Mattie married the dunderhead. They had a son. A daughter. Another son. Then twins. Along the way they started a business, sold it, and started another one. With branch locations.

Stan joked that his family ran like a military operation and it all worked because his wife outranked him.

Matilda swore she would finish college before her kids finished middle school. Instead, she and her oldest son graduated from the University of Michigan together.

In spite of her schedule, she never missed her weekly coffee klatch. Attendees who had seen "The Guiding Light" recounted the episodes for those who had not. Her sister-in-law Barbara bought Mattie a Betamax recorder in 1975.

When Stanley died a few years later, his wife and his sister eased their pain by watching him on home movies.


# # #


For her eighty-fifth birthday, her family surprised her with a trip to see her beloved Wolverines play in the 2004 Rose Bowl game. The United flight was uncrowded. Not even a baby on board. The drone of the engines had almost lulled Matilda to sleep when the flight attendant rolled up with the food cart.

"Dinner is served," she said with a smile, placing a tray in front of Mattie.

"Thank you, dear. What's your name?"

"Kate. And I bet you're a Michigan fan," she said, pointing to her passenger's maize and blue scarf.

"I am, I'm going to the Rose Bowl. My granddaughter said she'll Tivo my show this week so I don't miss anything."

"Do you watch the 'The Young and the Restless'?" she asked. "It's my favorite."

"Sorry, never seen it. I've been with 'Guiding Light' from the start—before TV!" Mattie said.

"The Wolverines and 'Guiding Light' are lucky to have you," the flight attendant said as she moved up the aisle.


# # #

When Matilda heard the news, she assumed it was a prank. It was April 1, after all. But reports of the cancellation were true.

She was ninety years old and never dreamed she'd outlive her favorite TV show. She watched the final broadcast on September 18, 2009, then unplugged her phone and climbed into bed.

A week later, her five children, seven grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren gathered in her bedroom. This must be a wake, she thought, because I certainly can't sleep with everyone watching. She felt bad about worrying them, but she'd needed time to decide what to do.

She motioned to her daughter, Meta.

"Will you do something for me, honey?"

"Anything, mom."

"Turn on the TV. I want to watch 'The Young and the Restless.' Better late than never."

© Copyright 2009 Paula Johnson. All rights reserved.


Paula Johnson is a copywriter and graphic designer on purpose and a stand-up comedian by accident. She co-produces The Joke Gym open mic comedy show and is the editor of The Rose City Sisters Flash Fiction Anthology. Her story is a work of fiction, but United Airlines flight attendant/actress Kate Linder is real. She plays "Esther Valentine" on the "The Young and the Restless." Paula has never seen an entire episode of any daytime drama.

9 comments:

  1. This didn't fit into the story, but General Douglas MacArthur went on record as saying the WACs were his "best soldiers" because "they worked harder, complained less, and were better disciplined than men."

    Wow.

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  2. Hey, Paula - I loved it. I had a job in the kitchen of a fast food restaurant in the 70s, and when I started, the ladies in there were talking about these people they seemed to know who had the most amazing lives. It took me days to realize they were talking about a soap opera.

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  3. Wow: Sixty years in in under 1,000 words. That must be a record. Very well done. I feel so sorry for her, but I'm glad she didn't lose her groove for very long.

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  4. "decided on a major - and married him." Love that line!

    And I can so picture the household staff gathered 'round the radio.

    A fun romp through the decades.

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  5. What an amazing life you packed into those words -- and I love it that she was able to roll with the punches and adapt.

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  6. Mattie's a vivid character, and I enjoyed how you tied her life up with the soap opera through-line.

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  7. Lovely, Paula. You rolled through time! Beautifully done.

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  8. Thanks for all the nice comments. However, you know you're only encouraging me. I am kicking around an idea for a Christmas story.

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