Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: My Life to Live

Is there a soul out there who didn’t follow the televised tales of “All My Children” ‘s Erica Kane, or set work aside to catch “One Life to Live,” or iron when “Another World” came on? “I watched them all. We had a housekeeper who got us hooked when we were kids.” That was one reader. “My mother and grandmother watched ‘The Guiding Light’ and ‘Search for Tomorrow’; now I watch ‘The Young and the Restless with Mom,’ ” said LittleBird Kathy. Our Green Acre columnist, LittleBird Stephanie Cavanaugh surprised us: She auditioned for the role of Erica Kane back in the day! The major force in the male-dominated television industry back some 60 years ago was a young woman named Agnes Nixon, who created and wrote “One Life to Live” and “All My Children” and was head writer for “Another World.” Nixon died in 2016 at age 93, six months before Crown Archetype could publish her memoir, My Life to Live: How I Became the Queen of Soaps When Men Ruled the Airwaves. Here’s an excerpt from her story, itself something of a soap opera. 

HARRY CAME TO Nashville from Chicago for a temporary job and lived with his cousins. Young and brash, my father was full of moneymaking schemes that, according to him, would soon render him a wealthy man. None of my mother’s family liked him, and soon after they began dating, Harry became extremely possessive. His professions of love and total devotion seemed to impress my mother, but he was also intensely jealous of any other young men she knew. This caused many arguments, and Aunt May told her that she should break it off. She had such protective feelings for my mother and never felt that Harry could make her happy. She encouraged my mother to see other men who courted her. But Harry was always able to convince Agnes to forgive him for his outbursts.

After twelve years of pursuit, she agreed to marry him and moved with him to Chicago. My mother’s early letters to my aunt from Chicago

A vintage photo of author Agnes Nixon. / Photo courtesy of Crown Archetype.

conveyed a happy, yet busy, tone. She took a position as secretary to a lawyer, and the marriage seemed felicitous. But after a few months, there was a worrisome change. She became pregnant and wrote that Harry was disappointed at the new responsibility. But she believed he would be overjoyed when the baby arrived.

When I was born, I weighed seven and a half pounds, but three weeks later, I had lost four pounds—more than half my weight. I had pyloric stenosis, a gastric ailment that made me spit up any nourishment I received. In a panic, my mother called Aunt May, who immediately got on a train to Chicago. Fortunately, my mother insisted on taking me to a pediatrician, who prescribed a formula. My health improved, but the same couldn’t be said for the state of my parents’ marriage. Although my mother tried to hide the discord, Aunt May could hear their arguments through the thin bedroom walls. When May boarded the train back to Nashville, my mother went with her, holding me in her arms. My father’s furious attempts to keep us with him had finally fallen on deaf ears.

Back in Nashville, the household consisted of my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, and my four unmarried aunts—Emma, Catharine, Albertha, and Rose. Out of kindness and concern for me, the three elder sisters decided that, together, they would support us for the first year so that my mother wouldn’t have to work. However, it wasn’t long before she took a job at the Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company. As my mother dressed for work, I would begin to cry. My whimpers crescendoed into screams until my grandmother entered, hustling Mother out of the room, warning her that she couldn’t be late. Grandma would then close the bedroom door to shut out my screams, leaving me in agony until I fell asleep, exhausted.

A dollar store now fills the lot at 713 Russell Street where my grandmother’s home once stood, so I can’t be sure that the house was as cavernous as it seemed when I first toddled across its wide-planked floors. During my first five years, I became accustomed to my mother’s daily departures, but I was still lonely. I was left with my grandma Dalton, but after rearing twelve children of her own, she didn’t relish the idea of babysitting another small child. She made sure I was fed lunch, took my cod-liver oil, and had a daily nap, but her exchanges with me were limited to a few aphorisms, such as “Children should be seen and not heard,” and “You’re eating your white bread now.” The latter meant that I was spoiled. As a result of Grandma’s pronouncements, I rarely spoke in her presence, and to this day I prefer dark bread to white.

—Agnes Nixon

Excerpted from My Life to Live: How I Became the Queen of Soaps When Men Ruled the Airwaves. Copyright © 2017 by Agnes Nixon. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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