We're sitting in the library of our century-old farmhouse. The room, painted a soft pink with a wide border printed with stacks and rows of old books, is comfortable, with a well-used recliner and love seat that once belonged to a dear friend's mother. An antique claw-foot table stacked with tomes from the 1800s is tucked between two high bookcases. A sideboard that, in more genteel days, held starched table linens and polished silver, now is crammed with video tapes. A television set sits on top, alongside a small black cable box.
Wooden bookcases filled with old college textbooks, mysteries (many by Jonathan Kellerman and Patricia Cornwell), biographies, science fiction (Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Katharine D. Forrest among them), books about birds, books about cats, books about science, sociology, culture, humor books and children's' stories (including Trixie Beldon, The Five Little Peppers and The Peterkin Papers), line the room.
An old, unfinished wooden rocking chair rests beside an oak table in an alcove of three windows that look out over the woods and stream.
In the afternoon, sunlight floods the room, highlighting the dust that tends to accumulate in old houses filled with old books and old furniture.
It's a well-used room, our library, full of memories. It's a room where grandsons Sebastian, Trystan and Luke can lounge and sprawl, their feet up and a well-worn copy of Calvin and Hobbes, MAD magazine or Non-Sequitur in their hands. Books bought by their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents wait to be discovered, all in good time, and when they are ready to delve into more difficult reading than cartoon books.
Sebastian and Trystan's mother, my oldest daughter, Chris, remembers a feeling of awe when ever she entered the library. She remembers climbing the shelves, "exploring the upper shelves and the dusty books. Not even so much finding books I would want to read, but just finding old books," she says.
She and her younger sister, Jamileh, who were brought up without television, spent hours in this room, drifting through the pages of other lives, places and times. The girls, all grown up with families of their own, still love to read.
As my daughters' reading habits changed over the decades – from the comfort and security of The Little Fur Family to the scariness of R.L. Stine's tales and the complexity of Beowulf – so has television. Today's shows are fast-paced, edgy and graphic. The sheer number of channels, the range and variety of entertainment – educational, cooking, cop shows, comedies, movies new and old, news – is astounding.
While we love watching well-written shows like NCIS and House, and picking up tips from cooking shows, we often find ourselves drawn back to a gentler time, a time when civility ruled the airwaves.
One recent Sunday, we are watching "The Best of Red Skelton," and laughing so hard tears are rolling down our faces.
Skelton, who died in 1997, started out in vaudeville, performing in often bawdy shows. He started his television show in 1951, a time of generally conservative behavior. The show – and Skelton's sense of propriety – ran constant through the social upheaval of the late 1960s to1971.
The skits Red and the gang performed elevated slapstick to an art form. They were so funny that Skelton and his guests would often burst into laughter as they said their lines.
With a bit of greasepaint and a battered hat that was pushed and pulled into a shape that fit each character's personality, Skelton brought to life the characters he created: Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, Sheriff Deadeye, henpecked husband George Appleby, boxer Cauliflower McPugg and Junior, the "Mean Widdle Kid."
Like the old books that wait patiently in our library, Red Skelton's humor is enduring, as funny today as in decades past:
"I got a seagull story to tell you. Gertrude and Heathcliff, they're talking, the two seagulls, and she says, 'Tell me, what's a polygon?' And he says: 'A polygon? It's a dead parrot, ain't it?' "
From Skelton's Recipe for a Happy Marriage: Two times a week we go to a nice restaurant, have a little beverage, good food and companionship. She goes on Tuesdays; I go on Fridays."
I'll end this column with the wish with which Skelton always ended his shows:
"Good night and may God bless."