This afternoon, I’ll say goodbye to a 72-year-old friend whose life will end at 4 p.m. EST.
Before you get too worked up, this isn’t an assisted suicide story. But it is, nonetheless, similarly melodramatic. After 72 years on both radio and television, CBS will air the last episode ever of “Guiding Light” this afternoon.
Readers of this column may be familiar with my affinity for daytime dramas. The lunch-hour timing of “The Young and the Restless” makes that continuing drama my sole “appointment television” viewing on weekdays, but it’s “Guiding Light” that will forever hold a place in my soap opera heart.
My earliest memory, you see, involves me staring at a black & white television screen on South Washington Avenue in Oxford, through the mesh of my playpen. And on TV? “Guiding Light.” That show has been a longstanding family tradition. My grandmother listened to “Guiding Light” on the radio when it began in 1937. She passed the habit on to my mother, who watched the show since it began on television in 1952. As the aforementioned baby memory attests, my addiction began in 1968.
Our family isn’t at all unique in that regard. The weaving of soap opera stories from generation to generation embedded the genre in the psyche of American culture for much of the latter part of the last century. But, sad to say, it’s a medium whose time is drawing nigh. Every broadcast network used to have an entire day’s lineup of soap operas. After “Guiding Light” leaves the airwaves today, there will only be seven left – and those are endangered. Changing lifestyles, differing tastes, talk shows, reality shows, bad writing, O.J. Simpson – there are myriad excuses for the demise of the daytime drama. Today, I don’t care about any of them. Today, I’m losing a comfort blanket I thought I could always turn to.
Growing up, “Guiding Light” was a daily routine for me and my mother. Every day after school, I’d come home and sit with her in front of the TV from 3 to 4. It was a common experience that formed one of the foundations of our relationship. Becoming ever more disconsolate in my teenage years, “Guiding Light” was the one thing Mom and I could always talk about, even if that talking was mostly kvetching about what a slut Reva was, or how we couldn’t believe Beth dumped Phillip for that thug Lujack. I’ve measured so many of my early life milestones with moments in GL history, I couldn’t begin to relate them all here. One of the most heated arguments my mother and I ever had came in the early 80s, when she insisted I go to CCD after school and miss a crucial episode of the show. Thank God for YouTube, or I never would have seen Roger Thorpe fall off that cliff in Santo Domingo.
I kept the GL habit in college, bonding with fellow fans in my dorm’s TV lounge (yes kids, I went to college before rooms were wired with cable). Even in my early working years, I’d set the VCR daily, and call home to Oxford once in a while to dish the latest gossip from Springfield.
Somewhere along the way, I lost interest in “Guiding Light.” It was probably more the time constraints of my job or burgeoning social life, but at the time I think I blamed the fact that they cloned Reva. I sat through Ghost Reva and Amish Reva, even Princess of San Cristobel Reva, but the clone thing really jumped the shark. I’d still read the updates in magazines, and Mom would keep me up to speed (it’s a sad truism that you can stop watching a soap opera for years and still get caught up in a matter of minutes), but I dropped the daily viewing habit. I took comfort, though, in the belief that it would always be there if I needed it again.
In retrospect, I suppose I took those chats with Mom for granted, too.
A lifelong fan, my mother likewise dropped the “Guiding Light” habit a handful of years ago. Coincidentally, I think she blamed Time Traveling Reva (I’m not making this stuff up, I swear), but in hindsight, I think it was an early sign of the spectre of Alzheimer’s. My mother was adept at hiding the symptoms of the disease early on, but I’m pretty sure now she gave up on GL because she could no longer keep track of the characters or storylines. Like so many other things, I wish I’d known then what I know now.
Just like with “Guiding Light,” I believed that my mother would always be there. She lives on, but everything that made her, her has been erased by that insidious disease. In contrast, “Guiding Light” will end today, but its memories will remain. I can’t help but feel that the two are inexorably tied. If the genre has taught me anything through the years, it’s the importance of family above all else. Spauldings, Coopers, Bauers, Seymours or Genungs ... that’s what makes home, home.
Perhaps I’m being overly sentimental about a TV show, but my biggest regret is that when “Guiding Light” wraps up this afternoon, I won’t be able to share it with the one person who would understand. I can only hope that both of their storylines come to a peaceful resolution, and that somehow their light shines forever.