We were watching an unfamiliar game show. The contestant was shown photographs of three couples in silhouette. She won a hundred dollars for each one she correctly eliminated as not her parents. None of the three, as it turned out, were her parents. Okay. Then she was offered a trade: the three hundred dollars she had already won for what was behind the mystery door (gasp!).
Behind the door were her sixty-something mom and dad, who had been flown in from Texas to see her. How long had it been since they had seen one another? Two years. "Two years since she has seen them!" blared the game show host. "Awwwww," said the audience. Mom and Dad were grinning shyly; they were on national TV. Their daughter, who looked to be about thirty, was smiling back at them.
"Wait," said the host. Would she take five hundred dollars and let the show put her parents right back on the plane without a hug or a hello or anything? The mom and dad watched their daughter wrestle with this decision. She said, "no-o-o-o-o-o." She started to cross the studio to hug them.
"Wait," the host said. "Would you take a thousand dollars to put them back on the plane right now without a hello or a hug?" "We-e-e-l-l. Yes," She said, and took the money! The audience was torn. Some cheered; some groaned. Her mom's mouth dropped open.
"Well, Mom and Dad, what d'you think?" asked the host.
"Well, at least she got the money," Dad said, trying to be proud of his girl.
"I'll come visit you!" she called, flapping the money in the air. The camera showed two old people walking slowly to the van that would cart them back to the airport.
I have complicated feelings about this. My mom died when I was twenty-three, and I haven't seen my dad in two years, maybe more. I have small children, and so does he, from the second family he started at the same time I started my family. We talk on the phone, but we live a twelve-hour drive apart. I know that all adults have complicated feelings about their parents. My boys will have them about me when they are grown. Still, if a game show flew your parents from far away to see you, most people would at least want to speak to them.
I remember a science fiction book I read in high school that imagined us in the future watching televised surgery. A disreputable producer in search of a rating boost offers a family free surgery for their ailing dad if they will allow it to be televised. They get extra money if they will allow the surgery to be done without anesthetic. Watching that game show, I remember the science fiction story, feeling it had come true in front of me. How can a family recover from an experience like that? What did the show buy for a thousand dollars? What did they steal?
My boys and I got a chance to talk about families and money because of that show. We talked about what people do for money, what has been done throughout history for money. As usual I told too much and explained too long, and their eyes were glazed over before I felt finished.
I keep trying though. It's a crazy, beautiful, cruel, and loving world out there. In my family, I want us to aim for a balance of cunning and kindness. Our plan, should some sleazy game show host try to put us in that position, is to jump him and pound him until he begs for mercy. It's not the most socially constructive solution, but it satisfied the three of us that day. Maybe we could take up a collection for some prize money and offer the show's producers five hundred dollars each to apologize to the viewing audience. A thousand dollars to do it naked.