We Were All Children Once

When I was a child, I had a stuffed bunny, named Bunny. I also had a little pillow, named Little Pillow. I couldn’t sleep without them. Over the years they grew more threadbare, and I grew up, and eventually they were relegated to the closet and then, I presume, the attic.

Today I came across this gallery of photos depicting old stuffed animals, by photographer Mark Nixon who just published a book of his work called Much Loved, and found myself sad in a Toy Story 3 kind of way. It also reminded me of the opening paragraphs of one of my favorite essays, by Tom Junod, a profile on Fred Rogers he wrote for Esquire magazine in 1998 (“Can You Say Hero?“).

Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit’s safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.

The essay is a perfect piece of writing, and moving in a way I have rarely experienced. Maybe that is because it so perfectly reflects the goodheartedness that makes its subject untouchable by cynicism.

It doesn’t make sense, really, that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood should be the relic of my childhood that survives. Very little about the show makes “sense”; no focus group could have created it, no marketing team could have approved it. But, like most great art, it is the singular vision of one man, a genius man, one who saw the goodness in people, who believed that a TV show could bring out that goodness. It ran for 905 episodes, over 38 years.

What will people think 30, 50 years from now, if they happen across an episode and encounter the parade of sweaters (handmade by his mom), the primitive puppets, the songs with titles like “It’s You I Like” and “Everybody’s Fancy” and “It’s Such a Good Feeling” and “Many Ways to Say I Love You” and “Sometimes People Are Good”? Will it become an artifact of cultural kitsch?

We are cynical about so many things, but we are not cynical about Mr. Rogers. Just try to imagine making fun of him. It’s impossible. I read a lot of hateful comments and tweets and Facebook posts every day, and I can’t even imagine how it would feel to read something mean-spirited toward the man. Even the notoriously awful YouTube commenters are in the comments section on this video (which shouldn’t work but oh how it does) overwhelmingly uplifting, thanking Mr. Rogers for their childhoods.

He is quiet, he is gentle, he is thoughtful, and most of all he is purposeful. Everything he does has a reason. He understands what children need to hear and how to make them not just hear it but feel it, and believe it. Junod describes an experience on the Neighborhood set:

He writes all his own scripts, but on this day, when he receives a visit from Mrs. McFeely and a springer spaniel, she says that she has to bring the dog “back to his owner,” and Mister Rogers makes a face. The cameras stop, and he says, “I don’t like the word owner there. It’s not a good word. Let’s change it to ‘bring the dog home.'”

The first take was fine; it conveyed correct, factual information. But anyone can see the difference. Or rather, anyone can feel it. The second take affirms an ideal. It settles an uncertain heart.

Perhaps it is for this reason my great-grandmother watched his program every day, until her death at 105 years old. By the time his show began, in 1963, her kids had kids of their own. I don’t know if she watched him then. But I do know that every time she stayed with us, for a few weeks every summer and four weeks every December, she made it a point to watch his show, even if we children weren’t around. And she continued to watch him long after we’d all grown up and there were no more children to watch him with. His simplicity soothed her, I think, as the world around her grew increasingly unfamiliar to a woman who had grown up in the 1900s and 1910s.

At the end of his essay, Junod describes what happens when Rogers invites him to join him in prayer with his pastor:

I took it and then put my hand around her free hand. His hand was warm, hers was cool, and we bowed our heads, and closed our eyes, and I heard Deb’s voice calling out for the grace of God. What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it…and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed, that this was the moment Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—had been leading me to from the moment he answered the door of his apartment in his bathrobe and asked me about Old Rabbit. Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn’t, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.

“Thank you, God,” Mister Rogers said.

This is what we talk about, when we talk about legacy. It will be felt for years to come.

Just a few weeks ago my brother was at a library book sale and picked up a copy of Rogers’ book, You Are Special: Words of Wisdom for All Ages from a Beloved Neighbor. When he was checking out, he realized the cashier had missed the book forgotten to charge him the $1.50 he owed for it. He could have walked out with a free book and considered it a lucky mistake in his favor. But he couldn’t do that. Fred wouldn’t have approved. So he  paid his rightful balance without being asked.

When he got home, he opened the book to realize his copy had been signed by Fred himself. “For a Special Friend,” it says.

And aren’t those just the words we all want to hear? He knew. He always knew. It can sound silly when we say it to adults, so he said it to children. And we were all children once.

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