After a Fashion
Gather 'round children and listen to the tale of how Eight Is Enough factored into a big family reunion
CHRISTMAS 1977 In her Dec. 19, 1997, "TV Eye" column in The Austin Chronicle, my sister, Margaret, wrote, "Of the many things to be grateful for this season, oh reader, thank your lucky stars I am sparing you the heartwarming story of how an Eight Is Enough Christmas episode brought my estranged family together. Suffice it to say that it was the one after Mom Bradford (Diana Hyland) died and Tommy (Willie Aames) acted out his anger until the discovery of Mom's hidden Christmas present made him realize what a shallow, self-absorbed little twit he'd been." Well, far be it from me to spare the details. When that show aired 20 years earlier (29 years ago!), I'd just turned 20 and was living on my own in Houston, beginning my career as a designer, and had just been fired from my job at Hire's Fabrics ("Hire's fires"). My father had died three years before, and the wound was still fresh. I was painfully estranged from my mother in Seattle and had been for several years. My two brothers also lived in Seattle, and we didn't talk much then, but my sister, Margaret, was in Austin, and she and I were close, as we always had been. It was not a pretty time for me; I was dirt poor, well on my way into a 20-year drug spree, and had nothing in my life to keep a grip on. It was cold that year, and my gas stove and heat had been turned off because I hadn't paid the bill. I still had electricity, though, and survived by heating up soup in my coffeemaker and making grilled cheese sandwiches with my iron. Life wasn't all bad: I was whipping up fabulous outfits to wear to the disco every night and drank plenty of 5 cent beer (!) when I was there. Beer, I could afford. Heat, I could not. I found a job making gift baskets at a liquor store mainly so I could buy more fabric, party more, and forget how miserable I was. It worked for a few minutes. Too tired after work one night to put on platform shoes and mascara, I swaddled myself in blankets on my couch and turned on the television. Eight Is Enough, a guilty pleasure of mine, came on a two-hour Christmas special. (Eight Is Enough starred Betty Buckley, a favorite of mine, who will be honored at the coming 2007 Texas Film Hall of Fame.) The first hour was filled with the usual sentimental travails of the Bradfords, but as hour two unfolded, I was transfixed. The saga of Tommy and the Christmas present from his dead mother hit me hard, and in no time, I was blubbering like a baby. When it was over, I called my sister in Austin, sniveling, but got her then-husband, Ken (I called him my husband-in-law), instead, who matter-of-factly told me, "Margaret's in Seattle with the rest of your family for Christmas. I thought you'd be there, too." Weeping anew and feeling very sorry for myself, I called Margaret in Seattle. I told her about the show, and soon, à la Lucy and Ethel (or was it Sodom and Gomorrah?), we were cooking up a scheme so that I could be in Seattle, too, and we could all be together as a family for the first time in a long time. Margaret enlisted the help of my two brothers, who were also excited at the idea of having me visit for Christmas (probably more excited because I promised to bring them a case of Coors beer, which was not available in Seattle back then), and we decided that I would arrive on the 23rd and surprise my mom on Christmas Eve. Flying up there was out of the question, given our collective finances, but after I got paid, I could definitely afford to take the bus. And so it was settled. The day before my departure, I collected my check, quit my job, packed the beer, and packed a bag with crackers and spray cheese on which I subsisted during the long ride. The trip was a jolly one; everyone was going somewhere for Christmas, and the excitement was contagious. We drove through places I'd only heard about in the folk music I loved Denver, Cheyenne, and Big Sky and the 3 days on the bus were over before I knew it, though I was suffering from a heavy dose of "bus lag." Margaret and my brother Scott met me at the bus terminal in Seattle, and we went to his apartment that he shared with my brother Bill. We all celebrated our reunion with Coors and assorted party favors well into the night. Groggy the next morning, we made the trek to my mother's house, where my brothers and sister had my mom sit down and close her eyes while I was ushered into the room. I was already on the verge of tears when she opened her eyes, and when she saw me, she leapt up and hugged me tightly, crying and kissing me. There was not a dry eye in the living room, and once again we were a family together for the holidays.