By Felicia Scarangello
Alex Trebek ruled my mother’s life. Her life revolved around him, so mine did too.
There was no TV during dinner time. My mom, dad, me, and my cousin Charles (if he showed up) sat down for dinner promptly at 6:00pm. That way we could eat, clear the table, and be ready for Breyer’s ice cream and Taster’s Choice instant coffee by the time announcer, Johnny Gilbert, boomed “This Is Jeopardy!” at 7:00pm.
Mom, who grew up on a Missouri farm, was neat, proper and a Democrat. Dad, the son of poor Italian immigrants, was messy, absent-minded and a Republican. They had much dark and light between them, a parent who was murdered, a brother-also murdered (hence my cousin living with us), a sibling who drowned, PTSD from World War II. They had been through a lot—things that were hard to believe. Disagreements were frequent, but when the familiar Jeopardy! intro music played, all that stopped. We shushed each other as the contestants were proudly introduced. No comments were permitted until the first commercial break.
Alex appeared on the screen and we all exhaled. “Alex, there he is,” my mom would say, as if seeing an overseas relative, after years apart.
While life had taken people from her, Alex was dependable, he showed up every Monday through Friday. Later on, when I worked on TV game shows and shot five shows in one long day, I realized he had just changed outfits and wasn’t actually there every week day, but illusion gives us hope.
Alex (he was always on a first name basis in our house) proceeded to dig a little deeper into each contestant, having them share a fun (and very rehearsed) fact about themselves. Nothing shocking, nothing sad.
“I married my kindergarten classmate, 25 years later.”
“I played golf with Jimmy Carter.”
“I once ran a marathon in a tutu.”
Alex listened calmly and patiently and retorted with a clever or heartfelt one-liner of his own, “Glad you waited” or “Not many people can say that.” He was sincere, he was gentle, and he was smart as hell (whether he actually was, didn’t matter at all in our house. Both parents had PhDs but Alex was the smartest—no contest).
“What is The Berlin Wall?” “Who is Gracie Allen?” “What is the ZigZag stitch?” We shouted out answers in the form of questions. If one of us got it correct, but forgot to answer in the form of a question, it didn’t count. Alex, reliable and steadfast, was in charge.
After I left home and moved to New York, I called my parents almost daily. Occasionally, between school, work and the social life of a young New Yorker, I’d space on the time and call at 7:25pm. Mom would pick up. “Can I call you back after Final Jeopardy?”
“Oh, shoot. Sorry. Yes, of course, Mom.” Click. She’d always call back.
She kept me up to date about the happenings back in Delaware. Also, about Alex.
“I planted Roma tomatoes.”
“I got a letter from Charles; he’s back in prison.”
In 2004, pregnant with my first child, I got a call at work from Mom. “Did you hear? Alex fell asleep behind the wheel of his pickup truck. He could have died but was back hosting Jeopardy! four days later. Can you believe it?!”
A few years later, now a mom myself, I called my mom from work (it wasn’t Jeopardy! time, so I knew I was safe).
“Alex had a heart attack,” I told her. I had heard it from a co-worker.
She gasped. “He’s tough. You know, we’re about the same age,” she told me for the umpteenth time. She was quiet on the other end.
“Mom? You there?”
“I’m still here,” she said. “I can’t believe it. We’ll get through it.”
I was home for a quick visit alone. My son, now three years old and my husband were usually in tow, but after my second miscarriage, I needed some solo mom time. After picking me up from the Wilmington Amtrak station, while stopped at a red light, Mom reached her thinning soft veiny hand over and patted my knee. “I didn’t want to worry you while you were in New York but…” She inhaled deeply.
“Is Dad Ok?!” I asked.
“Oh, yes, yes, he’s fine. He found a robin’s nest under the air conditioner; he’s been monitoring the eggs.”
“Oh, he had a job at the Dollar Tree but he’s back in jail. Impersonating a police officer. Can you believe it?”
“What happened then?”
“It’s Alex,” she said.
“He’s in a cast. He was chasing a burglar that came into his house. Can you believe it?”
Of course. Alex Trebek! I should have known. “Yes, I can believe it. That’s awful news,” I said. “I hope he feels better.”
“Me too,” she said, continuing to pat my knee. “Me too.”
Soon after, my dad died. Mom and I began to watch Jeopardy! while on the phone with each other. Me in New York; she in Delaware.
As usual, I filled in where her pop culture knowledge was weak and she, though slower on her answers nowadays, was still quicker than me on history, geography and almost any other subject ending in “Y.” “He gets more handsome over time,” she said once more. I looked forward to 7:00pm.
My mom became skinnier on each visit. She was forgetting things. She told me she was worried. I was worried too.
Charles died. Alcohol poisoning. “Not surprising,” Mom said on the phone, after Jeopardy!. “Can you believe it?”
“Yes, I believe it,” I told her.
“Alex had a bad fall,” she told me. I knew who she was talking about this time. He had complications, blood clots in the brain. She reminded me once again, “We’re about the same age, Alex and me.”
Soon after, my mom had a bad fall too. My husband and I left the kids with a friend and went to bring my mother to live with us in our Brooklyn apartment.
She was no longer able to walk, then, no longer able to speak more than a few words. I bought her a lift chair, to make it easier for me to move her from her wheelchair to her TV chair by 7:00 to watch Alex.
My mother died this year, before Alex. He didn’t know that her life was tied to his. He didn’t know he was a steady beacon for her. Beacons don’t know what they are: steady lights that guide you home, in this case, with the Jeopardy! theme song playing in the background.
Felicia Scarangello lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two kids, a leopard gecko, a betta fish, and, until earlier this year, her sweet mother. Alex Trebek has been part of her family for as long as she can remember. Find her on Twitter, Instagram or her website.
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