I know we may be far apart, but I’m glad that I get to be an internet neighbor to you!
I want to share something special with you – I’d like to take some time and talk about my grandma, and Mr. Rogers, and why they’re so important to me. Would you read this post, and share your time with me?
It’s hard to know where to begin. As I write this, I’m starting the same way Mr. Rogers did, by taking off my shoes and getting comfortable. I don’t have the same selection of hand-knit cardigans he did, but I think I can get by just fine without them. Even in a grubby sweatshirt, I know that I’m special, just the way I am – just the way he said I was. Just the way my grandmother knew I was. Just the way Mr. Rogers knew you all were.
When I was very young, I lived with Mom, Dad, my sister Sarah, and Grandma Dorothy. Sarah was nearly six years older than I was, and Mom and Dad both worked, so most of my day was spent in the arms of Grandma, talking and playing games and watching television, and we would always, always watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
In her den, where my favorite television was, there was a square brown clock with no numbers – every place there might have been a number, there was instead a coin. I knew that Mr. Rogers came on when the little hand pointed at the quarter on the right, and the big hand pointed to the half-dollar at the top. Mom and Dad’s work schedule might change, and Sarah might not have time for her little snot of a brother, but Mr. Rogers was always in that den at three o’clock sharp, and Grandma was always there, watching with me.
She was a lot like Mr. Rogers. They had the same crinkled hands, and the same mosaic of grey and black hair. They had the same patience and kindness, and nearly the same soft voice. But the most important thing they shared was that they never talked down to me. They spoke simply enough for me to understand, but never with a tone that made me feel childish. With them, I felt like a small but important part of the world. I woke up secure in the knowledge that I was a part of the neighborhood, even if our town was too small for me to really have neighbors.
I wouldn’t be talked down to until I was old enough for public school. My teacher, Mrs. Johnson, was a woman of infinite patience and kindness (for which I’m of course grateful), but in the end, she had to hold a big letter “A” in front of the class and have us make the noise – “Ah, ah, ah” – to get on with teaching us to read and spell and do sums, like the children we were.
To his eternal credit, Mr. Rogers didn’t bother with that kind of rote educational bookkeeping. He told me (and when I was that young, he really seemed to talk to me through that TV set) about going to the doctor, or getting a haircut, or being fitted for a new pair of shoes. He talked to me about about how to feel sad without moping, how to feel mad without hitting. He taught me how to navigate a world of adults, not as an adult, but as a competent child full of questions and thoughts and mistakes – the kind that didn’t belong in a school. Wasn’t it just so nice to know that there were people to ask about my health and hair and feet? That there were grown-ups who knew what it was like to be angry or down? And always I knew that I could count on Grandma to help me understand. She knew just about everything, and Mr. Rogers said that it was alright to ask her things when I was confused, or to hide behind her when I was scared.
If only that could last.
I don’t believe in perfect families, and even if I did, I wouldn’t hold mine up as an example. I was the perfect blend of spoiled and naïve that comes with being the youngest, and Sarah would’ve screamed bloody defiance from every rooftop if she could find ladders tall enough. Mom and Dad had the usual mix of love and distance, pride and disappointment, that comes with being attentive parents. They seemed to hold themselves so resolutely responsible for my every step and misstep that it was sometimes hard to feel close. Grandma, though – at least in those years – was always near and perfect and loving. But even a small child can only be called by his father’s name so many times before he knows something’s wrong.
Alzheimer’s is a hell of a disease, and I’ll always remember the four of us sitting around the dining room table, the sun beaming unwelcome through the windows, as we discussed which cabinets and doors would need locks to keep Grandma from getting into them and hurting herself. I’ll always remember the in-home caregivers who put up with my antics to give Grandma the help she needed. Maybe most of all, I’ll remember my uncle paying us a “surprise visit,” coming to take her away from us to stay with him instead. I couldn’t understand the tension, the mistrust, the goddamn money that weighed on the family. I felt the weight like a child does, without words to grasp it and cast it away. In hard times like those, some folks might turn to religion, but somehow I never managed to catch one. Jesus seemed like a nice guy and all, but he never really managed to be my messiah. All I had was Mr. Rogers.
Through his years of service on public television, that simple Presbyterian minister, never once raising his voice or speaking of a distant God, became the nearest thing I had to a savior. While school didn’t have much to tell me besides a little reading and a little math, Mr Rogers taught me what to do with the mad that I felt. Every lilt of his jazz piano, conducted by nothing but his grin, carried something of my grandmother in it. His soft, steady voice held the reassurance and pride that she used to have for me.
Just tonight, after watching Seth Rogen address the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the topic of Alzheimer’s funding, I took the risk of looking like a complete fool and watched an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Hearing that jazz piano, singing along with songs I thought I’d forgotten – it was like sitting with Grandma again, even if just for a second. For his entire life, Mr. Rogers preached nothing but love and acceptance, and now I can’t help but feel a sense of duty, in my grandma’s memory, to ensure his work is never forgotten. At the very least, I have to hold onto it for myself, to feel the forgiveness and compassion for myself and others that I’ll need to survive another day.
I don’t want to sell my folks short; I don’t think I can ever be grateful enough to them for being exemplars of adulthood, beacons of calm and reason, showing me how to speak up, stand tall, and be the grown-up I see in the mirror. But Grandma Dorothy remains my touchstone for being a good person, loved and whole. I carried her to her resting place years ago now, and I didn’t save much in the way of recordings or pictures, but Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is nearer to my grandma’s love and acceptance than any keepsake. I know I don’t have to admit to tears on the internet, but I can, and I will, because I can think of at least two people, gone though they are, who like me just the way I am.