What Would Mrs. Hughes Do?


"You didn’t read the book, did you?" I asked Julian, my 13-year-old son, although it was more an invitation for him to confess. Because I knew.

Julian had walked in the door when I was just in the middle of the Season Three finale of Downton Abbey. Mrs. Hughes, head housekeeper, was in the process of dismissing Edna, a new maid, who had been shamelessly pursuing sad and lonely widower Tom Branson. "There are rules to this way of life and if you don't intend to abide by them it is not the life for you," Mrs. Hughes told Edna.Branson, once the house chauffeur, had fallen hopelessly in love with Sybil, Grantham Manor's youngest daughter, and together they ran off to marry in his native Ireland. After several months and a number of reasons I won't recap here, both Tom and Sybil, now pregnant with their first child, find themselves returning to Downton. After giving birth to their daughter. Sybil dies, leaving everyone shocked and heartbroken. Having finally been fully welcomed into the family by his lordship, the once reluctant Lord Grantham, Branson is now living upstairs with his in-laws, the en-"titled.’"

Meanwhile, Julian had returned from a long, laborious day of school, chorus practice, and a minor skateboard injury, with a planner full of homework assignments, the likes of which he swore he’d never seen before. He said he needed to go on Facebook to "get help" from a friend for a book which he freely admitted, in fact, he hadn’t read.

"Okay, we're done with television," I declared, "until you get back on track. You know you’re required to read at least a half-hour a day, we’ve been through this before. From now on, no TV without reading at least half an hour, first."

"That's ridiculous," Julian groused. "I'm not doing it. Nobody does it, nobody reads."

"That’s it, Julian, no TV tonight, case closed."

Julian wouldn't let it go at first. He then announced, as he lay face down on the couch, that he wouldn’t be joining us for dinner.

"You made me lose my appetite, and now I’m too tired," his muffled voice called out from under a pillow. And it was his favorite chicken, too. Boy, did he show me.

Of course, I’d been through this with Julian many times before, for one reason or another. Depending upon our moods or what else we were up against, the situation would either escalate into shouting, stomping, and slamming of doors, or slowly but surely fizzle out into a tentative calm.

I'd had it with this kid, and not quite sure how far into the evening the obnoxious ‘behavior’ would take us. Julian, who has the resolve of a Rottweiler, can stew, nag, and stalk his way through your peace of mind, no matter how firmly you hold your ground. My older son, Max, who finds these stand-offs unbearable, attempted to zero in on his own work and, I imagine, hoped for the best. The night could get ugly, I thought, and I’m not up to the task.

As far as Downton Abbey goes, I arrived a bit late in the game here. At a complete disadvantage when Season Three began airing in January, I’d missed both the first and second seasons, having to tolerate, for two long years, the insufferable Downton buzz that surrounded me wherever I went. I'd become determined to plow through the 16 shows I’d missed, and worked through the episodes at a feverish pace. I was still only in the middle of the Season Two DVDs when Season Three's finale aired. A friend texted me when it was over: "I'm so pissed off at Downton Abbey… I'm bloody mad at what they did!" She knew to keep her mouth shut, and I knew not to ask.

I took on Season Three as if it were a new best friend, and, now a die-hard fan, I'd soon realized it was my viewing frequency that had caused our relationship to become so intense. With my iPad logged on to PBS.org, Downton Abbey followed me everywhere in my house, from room to room, from task to task, every evening. I'd become captivated by butler Carson's steadfast hold on the staff members. His righteous and unwavering loyalty to his lordship comforted me, while leaving me to wonder where his own sensibilities ended and his professional duties began. It could well have been they were one and the same. But his stern, authoritative stance was almost endearing, as it had always given way to the compassionate but equally self-possessed Elsie Hughes, Carson's counterpart -- the two of them functioning almost as parents to their staff of "children." Mrs. Hughes, along with dismissing Edna, had also earlier fired the maid, Ethel, who’d been knocked up by a wounded soldier convalescing at "Downton" during the war. A serious professional and a principled woman, Mrs. Hughes had been overcome by a sense of responsibility for the ousted and downtrodden Ethel and had a change of heart, secretly running off to visit her and her barn with food and other sundry items. It was Mrs. Hughes who, in so many words, told Carson to get over it when gay valet Tom Barrow had caused a stir by making a serious pass at James, the new, second footman. It was Mrs. Hughes, week after week (in my case, hour after hour), who firmly laid down the law in the way that only she could do, so that every staff member knew where he or she stood, taking any reprimand on the chin, with nary a complaint.

And it was Mrs. Hughes who I channeled as I looked at Julian on that couch, his face buried in a pillow, pissing and moaning over the injustices of life and what a big pain-in-the-ass his mother was. I wouldn’t let him get away with bupkis was how he saw it, and he would have none of it.

I went to the couch and sat on the edge next to him. Having just left Ms. Hughes mid-stream on the iPad, I was calm and self-assured, my thoughts collected.

"Julian," I began softly, stroking his hair. "I know you’re angry, and you think I’m not being fair. But we both know what the expectations are, and it doesn’t make sense to behave as though you don't. We had a deal, we both agreed, and you let it slip. Because I trusted your word, I left the reading up to you. We saw here tonight that it didn't work, so now, you have to do what you know is right. I'm going to leave you here for a bit to think about it, and I hope you'll come and sit down with us for dinner."

It took all of three minutes for Julian to stir, showing signs of cooperation -- and hunger -- which brought him to the dinner table. I, via Mrs. Hughes, had managed to defuse a potentially ugly situation. While I'm not ready to attribute this particular finale entirely to Mrs. Hughes, because after all, I’ve pulled this off quite a few times before, I will concede that this time, rather than relying solely upon my need to survive, I was able to give pause and to reflect. I was able to think about what Julian wanted, what I needed, and ultimately, what simply just had to be.

Downton Abbey: life-changing television, more than you'd even know....