Teresa Mathew
Oct 15, 2015 · 4 min read
Photo by Teresa Mathew

My father had to type and print out a set of very detailed instructions so that my mother would be able to navigate our television. It takes up an entire page and starts with the basics (step one: use the Dish remote to turn the television on). But my mother has always had just enough technological proficiency to watch David Letterman.

She would rarely watch him live. Instead, she recorded every episode and would watch him during the day, while she was shelling beans or eating lunch or taking a catnap on our couch.

My mother first discovered David Letterman as a new immigrant — three days after her arrival to the U.S., she was flipping through the channels and came across what would soon become her favorite type of American: a tall, comedic, nerdy white guy. Those early years in New England were lonely for one of the few Indian housewives in Merrimack, New Hampshire; so lonely that she once ran through the trees of her old backyard upon glimpsing an elderly Indian couple, desperate to reach them and find some kind of connection. I can picture her, black hair streaming and eager eyes craving, wondering if she would ever feel comfortable in a nation so far removed from everyone and everything she was used to.

My father worked, they didn’t own any pets, and most of her family was a plane ride or an expensive phone call away. So Letterman became my mother’s daily companion, the one who led her through the twists and turns of American life. He would tune her into politics and pop culture, and she found his impertinence irresistible. My father was appalled by her fascination, wondering why she couldn’t have chosen someone more ‘normal’ — “He’s just creepy. Are you sure you don’t like Johnny Carson?” — but it was too late. For the next three decades, my mother would hold steadfast to her love of Letterman.

He was the one who filled her in on the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus, on the latest gaffes of George W. Bush or Joe Biden. For as long as I can remember, most of her pop culture references have been prefaced with “Well, I heard on Letterman…”

For my mother, there has never been anyone wittier than David Letterman. She was first drawn to his irreverence, the way he could come up with off-the-cuff quips and poke fun at everyone in a way that was undeniably clever and just short of caustic.

“No one did what he did,” she would tell me wistfully, “that kind of thumbing his nose at authority. And the kind of freedom artists have here to do that — I’d never seen anything like it in India.” I tried to imagine what it must have been like for a young Catholic woman from South India to turn on the television and hear a comedian lampooning the revered and powerful. I don’t think David Letterman is entirely to blame for the rebel my mother has since become — the outspoken environmentalist who once said at the dinner table that she’d like to slap Ronald Reagan — but I’d like to think that knowing irreverence was valued in her new shore gave her the freedom to become whomever she wanted to be. Say whatever she wanted to say.

My mother can chart her time and assimilation to the US through David Letterman’s career: over her three decades of following him, he has switched networks, weathered a sex scandal, and, to my mother’s critical eye, mellowed out. She in turn has moved across the country, had two children, and now criticizes the US loudly, openly, and out of love.

My mother goes to protest rallies. She has branched out from Letterman’s politics; she protests the Keystone Pipeline and believes in freeing Tibet. She doesn’t need a mentor in disruption anymore.

When I flew home from college after graduation, my mother picked me up from the airport. As we neared our house, she said pensively, “David Letterman’s last show airs tonight.” I replied, only half joking, that I was honored she had chosen to pick me up during the broadcast.

“Oh, it’s ok,” my mother replied seriously, “It isn’t live anyway, and it’s being recorded.”

She pulled into the driveway and gave me a rueful smile.

“It’s like an era of my life is over.”

America is a strange place and David Letterman may be its strangest ambassador. But I think he taught her something indelible about the American psyche. That no one is too powerful to laugh at, or poke, or take down. That crooked teeth can’t necessarily keep you off television. That sometimes it takes a 70-year-old man to teach a 50-year-old woman about a 20-year-old Canadian popstar.

She misses him, I know. And I think back to a limerick she recited to me two years ago, over the phone, when I was a sophomore in college and too busy working at the newspaper to give her ryhmes their proper due.

“I wrote a limerick about Mitt Romney,” she told me proudly. “Here’s how it goes: There once was a moderate Mitt/tried out for a Right Wing skit/ by spring he had bested/the hand-over-breasted/ by fall he had casually flipped.”

So if The Late Show with Stephen Colbert needs someone to help with political punch lines, I’ll send over my mother’s application. Now that Letterman’s off the air, she has some free time.

Mother Tongues

Second-generation stories told first hand

Teresa Mathew

Written by


Mother Tongues

Second-generation stories told first hand

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