Hooked on soaps – thanks, Mom

My mother has taught me many things: How to cook, how to hem pants and skirts (we’re both short, so that was, and still is, a necessity), how to shop for bargains and when to splurge, and how to iron (more about that later). She also taught me to be kind and polite and, most importantly, how to be a good mom.

I’m extremely thankful for those and all of my mother’s cherished lessons, but there’s another thing she imparted for which I will be forever grateful: She introduced me to soap operas. I love my “General Hospital.” I’m not ashamed to say it, and I thank my mother for it.

In my preschool years, my mom and I spent all of our time together. My dad was at work and my two sisters were in school, so during weekdays I’d accompany her to visit relatives, to coffee klatches with her girlfriends and to her weekly bowling league. She was, and still is, the greatest mother as well as an excellent homemaker. When I was growing up, our house was spotless, the laundry was always done and folded, the dinner was always homemade and baked treats were often around. I’ve had phases of being a full-time homemaker myself, and I don’t in any way compare. My house has always been dusty and its windows smudged from my cats’ noses and more. Baked goods? Forget it.

But the soap opera habit remains.

When I was 4 or 5 or so, after our morning jaunts out for errands, visits and such, my mother and I would set up our ironing boards in front of the TV in our ’60s-style “den.”

Yes, I had my own toy ironing board and an iron that actually heated up. She’d give me washcloths and pillowcases to do. (I haven’t ironed since then, seriously, so don’t buy your children toy ironing boards and irons, if they are still available, if you’re thinking that will help them look presentable in later life. Just saying.) On the TV in front of our boards would be “Secret Storm,” “Another World” and “Days of Our Lives.” We’d watch each with rapt attention while ironing. (It seemed like we ironed every day – what’s up with that?) I knew the casts and the melodramatic storylines of all the soaps well, all before entering kindergarten. I especially liked “Secret Storm” because there was a main character with my first name.

To all you judgers out there who are aghast at a mother subjecting her precious, impressionable young child to soap operas, let me just say this was many, many years ago, and while the soaps were probably considered risque? at the time, they were in no way like they are now, actually showing adulterers hopping into each other’s beds at a whim and mobsters being gunned down and so on. Plus, I was so young I didn’t get the subtle sexual stuff anyway. I just liked watching, and ironing, with my mom.

The soap opera thing was a long tradition in our family. My older sisters were heavily into the afterschool “Dark Shadows,” which, for those of you too young to know, was kind of a late ’60s and early ’70s version of “Twilight,” about vampires, but a soap nonetheless.

And, about once a month or so, my mother and I would drive to Gorham to pick up her elderly Aunt Ginny, a farm woman, to take her to the big city of Westbrook to have her hair done. Then we’d take her to our house until her husband could pick her up after his day job at the paper mill. My great-aunt was a very, very big soap opera fan. After lunch, my mom and I would sit and watch Aunt Ginny’s soaps with her – we didn’t iron during those visits – while Ginny shouted at the small TV screen encased in that huge, woodish box: “She’s lying! Can’t you see a liar right in front of you?” and “Leave him! He’s cheating on you!”

She never seemed to have a problem with me, a little 4-year-old, sitting beside her listening to her ranting, and sometimes R-rated, critiques. She was always nice to me, and she adored my mom, who never yelled at the actors on the screen.

On the paternal side of my family, a cousin told me that our normally subdued grandfather displayed the same kind of outbursts in his elder years while watching a soap with her when she, too, was young and impressionable. He once yelled at the TV, for instance, about a character on one of his favorite soaps getting “knocked up.” Neither my cousin nor I are the worse for those rantings. We’re respectable, upstanding mothers and citizens, thank you very much.

When I was in high school, I switched from my mom’s stronghold soaps to the seemingly cooler “All My Children” and, of course, “General Hospital,” with the famous Luke and Laura. Still, I kept up with my mom’s old shows to some extent. “Secret Storm” was off the air by then, followed by “Another World,” but “Days of Our Lives” is still gunning to this day. That’s the thing about soaps, you can go without watching them for a while, but be right back in the swing of things after one conversation with someone who has kept up.

Today, my mom has given up on her lone standout, “Days of Our Lives,” because, as she says, “it’s all about those teenagers,” and I feel bad about that for her because I understand her sentiment as I get older. It used to be that the cast was all characters my mom had known throughout her adult life. I guess the writers thought they had to draw in a younger crowd. (I remember one DOOL storyline about two teens arriving in a pod from outer space. No kidding.) It’s like a death, really, when you stop watching your favorite soap.

As for my lone standout, “General Hospital,” my mother doesn’t watch it, but she wholeheartedly acknowledges my allegiance. If I’m talking to her on the phone on an afternoon, she’ll remind me, “It’s almost time for your show.” I mostly DVR it, but I’m always within a day or two of the latest episode. Luke’s still there, and his kids, even one he didn’t know he had, of course. Laura pops in from time to time, too. Robin, daughter of secret agents Anna and Robert Scorpio and wife of Patrick Drake, who is the son of Dr. Noah Drake (in real life, ’80s Grammy Award winner Rick Springfield) recently seems to have gotten burned to a crisp in a fire, but she’s still alive in a secret place as of this writing. During the week or so after her fake death, GH showed clips of her when she must have been, at most, 6 years old. She debuted in 1985. The same actress all these years! That’s what I’m talking about. My lifelong friend, Robin. I sobbed! That is, I sobbed before I knew she was still alive and kicking.

I love GH. The acting, 99.9 percent of it at least, is superb. Kudos to those actors and actresses. How difficult must it be to do five different hour-long shows a week? (The handsomely dimpled Maurice Bernard as Sonny Corinthos? Muscle-bound Steve Burton as Jason Morgan? The fabulous Laura Wright as Carly? And another of my faves, Nancy Lee Grahn as Alexis Davis? Excellent!) I’ve seen lesser acting ability on prime time too many times. Soap storylines? I admit that sometimes they are beyond stupid, but for the most part the plots are captivating, lively, and downright good.

I know there’s the whole stigma of “housewives” sitting around in their sweats eating “bonbons,” whatever those are, while soaking in their soaps. I’ve never met those women. Remember, my mom and I ironed while watching ours. Today I know professional woman of all ranks who still record their remaining favorite soaps. (Soaps are a dying breed, I know, but please don’t even get me started about how they’re all on their way out. Banish the thought that “General Hospital,” in production since 1963, should go off the air.) These highly productive, savvy women I know watch their favorite soaps while on the elliptical or treadmill, or have them on in the background while they catch up on paperwork.

I know of women, longtime fans of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” both recently canceled, who to this day refuse, in protest, to watch the programs that took those previous timeslots just because they replaced their favorite shows. I even know one viewer, and he’s a man, who will debate with me the merits of “All My Children” over “General Hospital” for hours if given the chance. “They tried to freeze the world,” he’ll shout. Of course, that was a GH storyline a few decades ago that featured none other than the Elizabeth Taylor as the evildoer, so what can I say? There’s nothing to be ashamed of, and I’m not.

Thanks for teaching me how to hem, Mom, and sorry the ironing habit didn’t stick. You’re the best and I love you. And I love my “General Hospital,” too. Thanks.

Amy Vigeant Canfield and her mom, Shirley Vigeant, share a hug in this photo taken in the early 1980s, during the “General Hospital” Luke and Laura heyday.   

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