I’ve taken to watching the Perry Mason show each morning. It’s all about nostalgia; for as long as I can remember I have loved Della Street. When I was a child I saw her as the model intelligent, hard-working, eminently capable professional woman. Smartly dressed in her pencil skirts, cardigans or vests, and impenetrable makeup, she was the perfect colleague for Perry. To my mind, Paul Drake did nothing more than run from place to place collecting observations. Perry simply wrote opening and closing statements and lists of questions that he posed to witnesses (albeit with impeccable timing and an uncanny knack for revealing the real killer). Della, though, was the brains of the operation. Without her, Perry and Paul were lost.
In episode after episode Della did the research, took the notes, saw beneath the dishonest exteriors of clients and witnesses, and fed Perry necessary insights for solving the case. She knew when a witness or client could be trusted—and when they could not. She knew where to find all the information Perry needed to build his case, and even more important than that, she knew how to glide into the office, her arms overloaded with books, and drop them ever so elegantly onto Perry’s stylish desk. In one episode, Della worked late into the night with Perry by her side. The evening it aired I watched as Della slept ever so beautifully on the couch in Perry’s office. When Perry nudged her awake it was with extraordinary grace that she lifted her head – hair perfectly coiffed – from the pillow. At that moment I did not know whether I wanted more to be Della or to love her. Even now as I watch the show more than four decades after it ended and as the actress who played Della (Barbara Hale) enters her 90th year, I sometimes imagine myself working with Della, a starry eyed ingénue mentored by the graceful and brilliant working woman.
My great-grandmother shared my love for Perry Mason. I remember my grandmother pulling me to the corner of the kitchen and whispering in my ear, “Don’t you want to watch Perry Mason with Great Gram?” She always handed me two drinks – a Fresca for me and some kind of mixed drink for my great-grandmother – and a bowl of peanuts. Even as a very young child I played my role perfectly, seducing my great-grandmother into the TV room and out of my grandmother’s kitchen. Though I remember the frantic look on my grandmother’s face whenever she coerced me into performing this task, it did not dawn on me until recently that my work at those moments was to intercede, to save my grandmother from her mother’s interference and nagging. At the time I could imagine no other reason to watch Perry Mason than to see the lovely and brilliant Della Street in action.
I came back to Perry Mason by accident. As my own professional life wound down and my own days as a busy professional ended I began to look for new rituals, simple repetitions to punctuate and organize my life. By 10:00 each weekday morning I have read my daily newspapers, checked my e-mail, and am trying to figure out what I will do with my day. As fate would have it, I was struck one day by the desire to channel surf while I drank my coffee. That was the day Della came back into my life. That was the day I fell in love all over again. To borrow a worn-out cliché, that was the first day of the rest of my life.