Just being you is enough. Fred Rogers
One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. Fred Rogers
There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are. Fred Rogers
It was a daily ritual in our house on Pansy Street in the early to mid-eighties, the kids — our two pre-school boys and their toddler girl pal who lived next door — the three of them, planted on our bed, upright and attentive, facing the television that sat on the bureau nearby, transfixed by what they were watching. And I admit, this late afternoon ritual was a reprieve for me, a thirty minute deep breath in the day of a young mother of two rambunctious little boys, a time to wash a few dishes and maybe my own face, straighten the living room, perhaps brush my hair or stretch my body. I wasn’t as attentive as they were to the program that aired five afternoons a week on our public television channel. But, as I scurried about my grown-up tasks, I caught glimpses, both of the sincerity on the kids’ faces as they absorbed what was coming through the airwaves in their direction, and the sincerity of the man inside that little box of a TV who seemed to be speaking directly to them. I also admit, that from my detached space of mother-on-afternoon-retreat, I was a bit of a snob, grateful for sure, for this man who was taking over my parenting duties in such a loving respectful manner, but perplexed and amused that a show that was so low-budget, so simple, so dorky to my adult eyes, could hold the kids interest day after day after day. But my reaction didn’t matter. Whether I understood it or not, it was a fact; our kids loved him. Mr. Rogers was their friend, and, each afternoon, they willingly eagerly took up his invite and brought their full selves into his neighborhood — and his neighborhood, it became their neighborhood.
And this neighborhood that Mr. Rogers encouraged the little ones to enter, this space that bridged the television set with our own diverse rural and suburban and inner city neighborhoods, was a safe and welcome space for these pre-schoolers to dwell in. And when I stopped now and then to check up on the kids, I too found my snobby-self tiptoeing into this world of Mr. Rogers, surprised by the way he and his puppets spoke freely of feelings, the way all feelings, both light and dark, seemed to be invited into the conversation, the way all guests and regulars, a diverse group of guys and gals and puppet friends, also were welcomed, surprised by the way that I, a reluctant adult who was judging Mr. Rogers as dorky, felt welcomed as well.
I remember one afternoon, peeking in just in time to catch Mr. Rogers in serious discourse with the three toddler kids on our bed. Without a flicker of patronization, with his eyes locked into theirs, he was discussing fears, one fear in particular. I can’t remember whether it was the toilet or the bathtub that was the focus of discussion. Whichever it was, it struck a chord with the kids on the bed. They were listening intently as he explained that it just couldn’t happen, that there was no way, that they were far too big to be sucked down the drain. I’m not sure the toddler fear of being pulled into the pipes beneath our toilets and bathtubs even had been on my radar before — and there he was, the kids’ television friend, assuring them that they could relax, that they just needed some logical information presented in a loving respectful manner, that they were safe. Each day, our kids were getting a huge dose of kindness and generosity, tolerance and respect, along with these substantive conversations. Each day he was there for them. He “got” them. He had their backs.
And I, back then in the eighties took him for granted, took “it” for granted, the level of generosity and respect and tolerance that Mr. Rogers exuded to this television audience. I see that now. I hadn’t even thought about him in years, not until a trip to the movie theater a few weeks ago when I was reminded of his amazing ability to connect with the hearts and minds of the little people who revered him. My husband Cam and I were settling into the theater’s tilt-back easy chairs, getting ourselves comfortable in anticipation of the romantic comedy we were about to see, when the previews began appearing on the screen. And tucked between the action adventures and a comedy about dogs was a trailer for a documentary by an Oscar-winning filmmaker. It took me aback, took me way back, this trailer espousing in the voiceover that, in these divisive times, we need Mr. Rogers. We need his kindness, his authenticity, his ability to truly listen to people, little and big alike. And then the trailer honed in on him, the man I hadn’t thought about in years, the man looking out at us with his kind eyes in the same way he had once-upon-a-time looked out at our kids, and, as he zipped up his familiar sweater, he began to sing his theme song. That’s when I surprised myself. I choked up. I was crying, real snot-and-tears crying.
During our Pansy Street years, Cam was a young dentist who worked a block-and-a-half away from our little ranch house. Each morning, he would ride his bike, an old gold-colored Schwinn three-speed with chrome racks and a basket in front, to the dental center, his tie flapping in the bike’s breeze. And, each late afternoon, he would ride it back home again, parking it beside the garage. And then, with a burst of energy, he would barge into the house — we could count on it — marching himself right into the bedroom as those kids sat there watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And as he loosened, then whipped off his tie, he would start to sing it. “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor . . .” With gusto, he would continue as he dropped the white button-down onto the floor and pulled on his comfortable t-shirt, and just like Mr. Rogers, he’d belt it out, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?” And the kids, they would giggle, delighted with this ritual, delighted that their neighborhood was mingling with Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, delighted that it was all one big inclusive neighborhood. And I was delighted as well.
Mr. Rogers is getting his own documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and I am eager to see it. I am delighted he is back in our lives, back in our consciousness. It feels good to to be in the presence of kindness and generosity and inclusivity. I don’t care if he’s dorky. I don’t even know what dorky means anymore. Perhaps dorky is what we need right now in this world. I just know I want to be a part of his welcoming-all neighborhood. I just want to be his neighbor. Thank you, Mr. Rogers!
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood: Autumn, 1984