The Other Cassandra: Me, Mom, and Our Soap Opera Secrets

My mom used to blame television static on ghosts. Cassandra, she’d say, it’s the ghost again! That was my cue to walk my red light-up sneakers on over to our ten-inch television. I’d swat its thick side, banishing the ghosts that interrupted our soap opera. Be on the lookout for when it comes back, she’d say. I’d wait, attentive for the first crackle that dare interrupt our Saturday. I was five years old. I had thick brown bangs that covered my eyes, and knobby knees that I’d shake, unwilling to stay still for long. My mom worked seventy-hour weeks as a CNA at an assisted living home. She loved sitting still. She had blue veins encircling her calves, as if someone had tried to draw a roadmap on her skin, but got tired and stopped at her knees. Her work didn’t give us much time together. So, I pretended to like soap operas.

My mom’s favorite show was The Young and the Restless, whose star character was also named Cassandra. Except this Cassandra was Cassandra Rawlins. She was wealthy. She could convince a cop to kill her evil husband; she could change her identity at the drop of a hat (or lover’s pants). My mother admired that this Cassandra always put herself first. To me, Cassandra looked unhappy. Selfish. Conniving. Always running from trouble. I didn’t get what Mom saw in her.

My mom and I didn’t have every Saturday together to watch Cassandra. Every other weekend was spent cleaning apartments on Pontiac Avenue. That road was only five blocks from our house, but those blocks made all the difference. The people who lived there, in buildings with laundry rooms, exercise rooms, dog-walkers, tiny fluffball dogs, and free granola bars, didn’t have to clean their own rooms.

On the days we didn’t have to clean, didn’t have to touch someone else’s trash, we lounged in front of the television at home like faux-millionaires.

We’d be on a staircase, sweaty, my mom at the top vacuuming as she sung some Whitney Houston song, and I at the bottom, dusting the railing. On the days we didn’t have to clean, didn’t have to touch someone else’s trash, we lounged in front of the television at home like faux-millionaires. We could be in our pajamas until noon, eating Klondike bars for breakfast, feeling as royal and wealthy as Cassandra.

The only thing that interrupted our Saturdays together was the ghost. Deep down I knew that the static, the fuzzy lines zig-zagging on the screen, wasn’t the fault of some ghost, but I wanted to play along. I loved hearing the swat of my hand against the brown plastic of the television, and seeing how I made the blur go away. I liked doing that work for her. I knew we stole cable.

It was easier to say ghosts than to talk about real things. My mom didn’t want to explain that the poor reception was connected to the bills piled on the kitchen table. She didn’t want to tell me it was hard supporting me, and that she didn’t want to share that work, even when she remarried. She never confided in me about her fears: What if it doesn’t work out, this marriage? That’s why the bank accounts aren’t shared, see? Do yanno the man I married, your father, used to be the kind of person who bought his dates fur coats? And like the kind of guy who buys dates fur coats, he ran out of money! But, you have me.

Her way of dealing with these fears was to work. When she couldn’t pay a bill, she’d say, I’ll take care of it, and work double, sometimes triple shifts. When she returned from shifts too tired to talk, I didn’t know how to ask her for more, or if I could. I didn’t want to be like her when I grew up, always working, disengaged, fighting off threats. During our time together, I felt as if I too were a ghost, getting in the way. I didn’t see value in spending time together by watching soap operas. What could that give me? What kind of parenting was that? Did she even want me there? She was overworked and underpaid and I couldn’t see how essential not being there was to being able to be there, in a home, with stolen cable and the luxury of a television, couch, and ice cream bars. I used to think her soap operas were a way to escape me and my stepdad and the fate that led her here.

***

I remember the first time she told me how she chose my name.

We were sitting on our emerald green leather couch, half-awake. Her greasy hair was in a ponytail. I was still in sweatpants that had Power Rangers on them. It was a Saturday, one of ours, another one where mom would turn on a soap and evaluate the lives on-screen with me. She was the age when she still felt confident enough to wear capri pants, exposing her calves, and I was the age where I still asked to have colorful cereal that made popping sounds in my mouth.

“I got my name from this show?” I asked, unsure how I felt about being named after someone who did not exist.

“That’s where I got your name,” my mom told me. “Cassandra Rawlins. I named you after her because she never lets someone stop her from wanting something. And I want that for you too.”

“I got my name from this show?” I asked, unsure how I felt about being named after someone who did not exist. I immediately grew more invested in the fate of this character.

I tried to turn my attention to what was happening on screen, but I couldn’t tell whether Paul, the wanna-be husband, was mad at, or in love with Cassandra. It looked the same to me, and everyone was suddenly on a cliff, and the horizon was stained a dark purple, and Paul was crying.

“She’s so beautiful,” my mother said. “Don’t you think? She wastes it though.”

“You’re pretty,” I said, because I could hear a sadness in my mom’s voice when she was talking about how pretty this other Cassandra was. I wanted this sadness in her to go away. She seemed tired.

“Not like that,” she said. “But that kind of pretty takes money. Too much.”

My mom sighed, resting her chin in her hands. She didn’t have long, red painted nails like Cassandra, because it was against hospital policy. See, long nails collect dirt, and you can’t have dirt on the floor. No brainer. Some new girls try to wear ’em and that’s how you know they’re new. They don’t think that their stylish little nails could cause someone else some trouble or infection. They don’t think.

“If I had money like Cassandra’s,” she said, “I’d just be a designer. Let all those juices flow and be surrounded by colors. Been thinking about repainting the bathroom. Maybe pink? Not hot pink, but a classy pink, yanno?” In this episode, Cassandra was pretending to be a designer. “The color has got to pop. Always.”

“Does it have to be pink?” I asked.

“Yeah, gotta be bright. It’s too dull in there. Not enough light.”

So next week we bought paint. We painted the entire bathroom a color that was closer to Pepto-Bismol than classy, but it made my mom happy. She called it “vivid and funky,” which was all she wanted for our bathroom. I didn’t know what was wrong with the previous color, a pale pink, perhaps a pink too demure to be a bolder pink, but I could tell that a part of my mom craved to be bold, to be able to reinvent herself like Cassandra. She couldn’t create a new identity, but she could repaint the walls.

When she made moves like these, I could see how watching Cassandra gave her a type of desire that her current life couldn’t give her; it was this vicarious motivation for more opportunities, more options, more abilities, more, that could spill into her life. I was grateful that she translated this into a new color of paint for the walls, and not an affair or a murderous trap.

***

It’s hard to talk about all the things that never happen. It’s easy to blame the things that come between people on others, on ghosts, on make-believe. To invent stories instead of facing our histories.

From the age that I could talk until middle school, I was always asking my mom questions that she refused to answer. I’d ask these questions during shows, and she’d often hush me, or pretend not to hear. I wasn’t content with not knowing. Like the shows we watched, I wanted my mom to face me with as much intent as the characters did each other. I wanted confessions and secrets! I wanted to say: Tell me about your father who wasn’t much of a father. What did you say to the man who raped you when he said he didn’t want me either? What color were his eyes? When he said he wanted to leave, how’d you know you didn’t? Who is he?

There always seemed to be something lurking in my childhood, some subtext between us that I could sense, but not quite grasp. For example, I was four and a flower girl at my parents’ wedding; this fact confused most of my family and grade-school aged friends, who didn’t understand how I could be before my parents were married. Before I learned the word for sex (though my mother, the nurse, made sure I understood all of the anatomy by kindergarten) or adoption, my cousin Jenn asked if my mom was an exotic dancer. At that age, we still thought sexy dances created babies. Turns out, my aunt couldn’t find a nice way to talk about how my mom became impregnated, how to say date-rape to a curious eleven-year-old Jenn, so she opted for a “special dancer.” So, I asked my mom if she was a dancer. As with most of my questions, she wasn’t happy with answering or acknowledging them. I asked mom why she had to work so much. Asked if she could forgive me when, six, I dropped her framed wedding photograph on the floor, because I was mad that she had to work again, and I thought that that would explain my feelings to her. I cleaned up the glass, and hid the photo under her pillow.

Surely, I was learning something of drama from our soap operas. And, surely, she was learning the art of concealment. In fact, it seemed as if that was all the soaps were teaching her. Throughout my teen years, we fought. Constantly. I wanted her to let me in, and when she didn’t, I rebelled. In high school, I would take the car out at nights, tell her I was at Stacy’s, and sleep at a boyfriend’s house.

In anger, in a night following one of my sleepovers, she called me “an ungrateful bitch,” and in anger, I returned, “You’ve made me that way.” In stubbornness, we held to these views of each other. It was easier to say she was an absent parent who didn’t care, and it was easier for her to say that I was a spoiled daughter who didn’t care; we both knew we were wrong, but wouldn’t admit it aloud.

As much as I thought I pushed myself away from my mom, I realized, I was pushing myself with the same kind of tools that she put in my hands.

I moved out of state to college on scholarship. While she wanted me to apply my brains to something like law or medicine, I chose literature. Instead of looking at potential salaries for comfort, I looked to books. I looked to imaginary people in stories and invented dramas where everyone had a reason, a motive, and where you as a reader could trace that, clearly, sometimes, even better than the characters. And I wrote. Writing was power. I could unveil whatever fact I chose at the exact moment I thought it needed to be shown. I was a God in a land of make believe, and I was angry. I didn’t want to talk about my own feelings of disconnect, so I let other lives speak for me. As much as I hated to admit it, my mom was the one that sat by my side and showed me how a story can be as vivid and illustrative of the world. As much as I thought I pushed myself away from my mom, I realized, I was pushing myself with the same kind of tools that she put in my hands.

***

My mom didn’t have Cassandra Rawlins’ secret wealth from the marriage of a tech millionaire, or her ability to design houses and use that trait to create a secret identity for herself. She never killed a man, nor convinced a man to kill a man for her. But she did have her own dramas. When she unveiled these facts to me, post-college, she told them without emotion. There was no dramatic pause or long, drawn-out scene.

There was, “Out of six children, that my dad called by numbers, he liked me the least. I was number four.” There was, “I don’t talk to my family. If they want to talk to me, they can.”

Mom had a family that barely spoke to her, but as cavalier as it sounds, that doesn’t mean she didn’t value family. She had a mother who died from an embolism (believed to be from the stress of dealing with her husband who was an abusive alcoholic). Before she died, my mom would do all the grocery shopping for her, would clean for her, and brush her thinning hair that fell out in clumps.

My mother’s father had a stroke five years after she died. My mom was twenty, and stopped her life to be by his side. Despite him telling her to kneel on salt as a child when she misspoke, or spoke whenever he didn’t want her to, which was often, she did not cringe when years later her father asked if he could hold me in his lap.

“She’s your granddaughter,” she said.

When he carved a whale out of wood for me, she did not tell me of his brutal hands. She just said, “That looks like it took a lot of time to build. Be careful with it. Don’t wanna break it.” Even though she could have told me this whale was made by the same hands that slapped her mother until she bled, she didn’t. She didn’t make the dramatic choice.

Even though she spent hours watching others onscreen dance around in their own pain, she did not admit hers. She did not use her pain as a way to get something out of me, although she could have. Her choice of silence was her way of creating a blank slate.

“Never go with a man who just takes you like you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice. Don’t let them pull you.”

It didn’t work completely. During our shows, I could see something in her, still pining. She’d have outbursts as if Cassandra was an extension of herself, as if she could entangle the desires and mistakes Cassandra made, and in some way reach her, in some way fix her life.

“Cassandra,” she said to the screen once, “don’t be such an idiot! Don’t trust that guy.”

“How do you know he’s bad?” I asked.

“Trust me, he’s bad. Just grabbed her hand. Never go with a man who just takes you like you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice. Don’t let them pull you.”

I liked hearing my mom say things like that. Although she knew it’d be exciting to run away and have love affairs, she also believed that to do that all of the time would be an unwise way to live. It made me think that although she did see the pleasure in leading a senseless life, that she, herself, had too much sense to give herself over to a story like that. She valued how mundane her life was.

***

One time, after I graduated college, I had the courage to ask Mom if she was happy. We were walking around Roger Williams Park, steering clear of the swans, as my mom is deathly afraid of them and their pointy beaks. I was holding her hand, and feeling as if this was a new act of rebellion. We didn’t hold hands much when I was small, so walking side by side with her, crossing the grassy hill, felt like uncharted territory. When we reached the paddleboats, I got in first. She didn’t like how the boat could move out from underneath her, so I made sure to keep one leg in the boat and the other on the dock, so she’d, after arguing, climb inside.

We paddled for a while on the lake, going beneath the hemline of bushes and the long fingers of elm trees. When we grew tired, we stopped in the middle of the lake, beside clusters of lily pads, too far out to step in without sinking, but close enough to see the sandy outline of shore. Her hair was down, which was rare; it was a burnt orange, a bottle-dyed brassy hue and needed to be re-dyed. I could see two inches of dark roots with traces of grey hairs sprouting on her crown. I sighed at the sight of that, as if she could look in the mirror each day, and not think once of fixing it.

When I asked my question, my mom straightened her back and sighed, releasing the pressure on her shoulders. Her shoulders still looked tense, as if a man was standing on top of them, but she at least tried to relax. She looked out at the water as if there was someone in there who could answer for her.

“It’s not what I expected, but things rarely are. You just have to go with it. I think that’s the difference between a lot of people. Some expect a lot and get bitter when things don’t turn out. So you just make do with what you have, and hope for better for your children. I tried to make you happy.”

My cheeks flushed. I played back every moment I’d stamped or screamed or closed my door on her, instead of talking, as if by doing this I could bring her closer to me. I, for the longest amount of time, wanted to be a Cassandra that she would spend time with, engage with, be as upset over my own battles as she was over the ones are the plastic, stupid screen.

“Remember when I got you those pants? From that store you liked?”

“They were nice pants,” I said, knowing exactly what pants she meant.

“You never wore them.”

I started to cry. They were Abercrombie pants. I pleaded with my mom to buy those pants, that were just pants, but because of that name, priced at over one hundred dollars. She worked hard enough to let me get one pair, a shirt, and a sweatshirt. I needed them because all the other girls in class, girls who lived on Pontiac Avenue and could get their nails done with their mothers, had them. They made fun of me. I was so tired of having not. The fabric was itchy and the seams stuck at my sides at all the wrong angles. I wore the outfit maybe twice. That was a week worth of work for her, and I put it back into a drawer. I barely even said thank you. I acted as if she should have known that I needed them, that she was missing that information essential to parenting.

I, too, had wanted to be as bold and demanding as Cassandra. No matter the cost.

“They were really nice pants,” I said.

“I tried to give you things,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more.”

See, even in a situation where I directly wanted my mom to talk about herself, to talk about her own happiness, she would set it aside to discuss my own. My mom is a lot of things, and not a lot of things; but this ability, to want for others first and foremost, is her most relentless talent.

***

Recently, I have started to watch my own soap: Jane the Virgin. I watch it because, while based on a lot of things, at its heart, it’s about how a single mother relates to her only daughter who is now a single mother. To be honest, that’s not why I started to watch it. I started to watch it because it was pitched to me by Netflix as a parody of soap operas, as something that I could (having watched many in my past) watch and laugh at. The show itself is self-aware, consistently calling itself “like a telenovela” and creating absurd situations that make the characters chase criminal masterminds, meet long-lost parents, get accidentally impregnated, and have to deal with the affairs of slightly unhinged family members. What I didn’t expect was that I’d relate to it.

When Jane begins to yell at her mother for having a child so young and giving up her own dreams, and how that too seemed like a burden on Jane, I didn’t expect it to make me cry. I didn’t expect to be clinging to the edge of my seat, waiting to see how a mother could respond to that. I didn’t expect a show to be able to illustrate that entangled notion of love and resentment that many single mothers experience, and that I thought was unique to my own experiences.

I didn’t expect a show to be able to illustrate that entangled notion of love and resentment that many single mothers experience, and that I thought was unique to my own experiences.

I used to think people watched soaps because they wanted to run away from their life. They wanted to sit and steep in someone else’s drama and through connecting to that, disconnect to their own life. Being on the other side, as one of those people who follow stories, I know that’s not why we watch them. All these stories ask the essential question, which is one of the hardest to answer: do you trust me? Often, what breaks the trust down in these stories is money.

On Jane the Virgin, Jane is constantly being asked to trust or not trust her baby daddy, who has millions of dollars, but often dishonors the humble way Jane was raised. As a viewer, you hope she will side with the mom, who does not have money, but is a good person. You hope there could be a bond that is not built upon the idea of always-enough money. Now, I see that my mom was watching these shows for that unspoken hope. We didn’t have money. When she did marry, it wasn’t for money. She told herself that she worked ferociously so that I would never have to choose someone for the money or the security.

When watching my show, I can’t help but feel involved in the characters’ struggles. I can’t help but imagine my mom sorting through her wallet at Building 191/2, looking for the best sale on hand soap and diapers, wondering if it will be enough for the week, the month. I know that when she went through that, there was no one to ask how to mother. She guessed as best she could. And I guessed as best as I could at how to be a daughter. I don’t know how much of that was wrong, but I know it’s not over. I know that I have to watch this show so I can see if the mother and the daughter can work through their problems. I have to see their mistakes and take mental notes on how they learn from them, or don’t.

Weekly, I call her. I call to see if she bought her calcium tablets, or dyed her hair, or went to the doctor’s. Once, she worked so hard, and was so tired, she fell down a flight of stairs and cracked her skull open. After two days, with a concussion, she went back to work. I have to check in on her because I know that she is working overtime, because that is the only story she knows. I know that I have to keep calling so that she can see that what holds us together is more than just the situation, more than money. That, post-school, post-living-at-home, this is the part in our story where we figure out new roles. I can’t get back all the times I shut her out, but I keep showing up, keep tuning in for what’s next. No one else could write that script for us. There’s just too much backstory to fill in, and like all good stories, we need to create our present, fully knowing where we’ve come from, and where we intend on going together.

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