31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Comforting Thoughts In Uncomfortable Times

Single with Children: Mr. Rogers finds a place amid family photos

By Susie Parker
Publication Date: 10/24/01

Sometimes my kids laugh with me. This week, however, my kids laughed at me. Now don't get me wrong, sometimes I work to elicit laughter from Katie and Justin, especially lately, when we're all feeling a little too tense and insecure.

It all started with a "do it yourself'' project. I was putting together one of those "assembly required'' desks that came with more pieces than I had patience. I don't mean to boast, but I know my way around a power drill. This project taxed my usual enthusiasm and, uncharacteristically, I found myself reading the directions about six hours into assembly. I found a place for most of the parts and now am typing on a desk that looks fit for an air traffic controller.

But that wasn't what prompted the tears of laughter. I had to move files, unfinished projects that seem to multiply faster than rabbits, and even a stack of old magazine articles I can't seem to throw away, even though I can't remember why I saved many of them in the first place.

As I was regrouping my stacks, I ran across an old article about the man who (along with my father), helped raise me. There was a full page photograph of none other than Mr. Rogers, sporting his trademark blue sweater and comforting grin. I grew up in the '60s and I never missed his program. I stared at the image of a much older Fred Rogers and remembered things like the trolley that took viewers to the land of make-believe, the day one of his fish died and he allowed viewers to learn a gentle lesson about how precious life is, and how, at the end of every program, he left us with the concept that he liked us "just the way you are.'' As I grew older I realized those were probably the nicest words some kids heard on any given day. Not everyone grew up in the "Leave it to Beaver'' kind of household I did.

While I was taking my little trip down memory lane, I heard the television news reporting the stories spawned by the ripples of the terrorist attacks that occurred last month. I heard that anxiety was at an all-time high among Americans and that mental health professionals were seeing an exponential increase in their patient load. It was right about then that I reached for a push pin and, on the wall behind my desk amid photos of the kids and me visiting Disneyland, the Eiffel Tower and the Outer Banks, stuck Mr. Rogers' photo among us, as though he were part of the family.

It was about two hours later that my kids bounded into my office and noticed a new entry to my collage of memorable "Kodak'' moments. After they caught their breath, they asked how Mr. Rogers had found a place on my photo wall. Hey, C'mon, even the most jaded among us have to smile when we see him, right? My reasons were really more personal and earnest than sheer comedic affect. I tried to explain.

From what I remember, things weren't all that calm in the '60s, and even though I don't recall a lot of it, I know there was global unrest and probably more than a few anxious moments. I remember hearing about the fear of nuclear war, and I think I caught Walter Cronkite looking awfully serious on the evening news. In hindsight, things were more serious than I ever imagined, though I don't remember feeling scared about the world spinning out of control. I went to school, I played and every afternoon, just like clockwork, Mr. Rogers appeared for 30 minutes and reminded my generation that we mattered, we were loved, and somehow, it was all going to be OK. And we were. Is it too much of a stretch, I reasoned, to have faith that even amid the scary things going on in our world right now, we should still hope for the same?

Without sounding too much like the Pollyanna I am sometimes accused of being, we're all walking around on what feels like shaky ground. There is uncertainty. There is fear. There is constant, up to the minute information overload, courtesy of the Internet. We've got to shore up our reserve, steel our resolve, and find courage every morning to walk out of our homes and take on life. I think we also have to remember that, as Anne Frank noted in her diary, written from the confines of a hidden attic in Amsterdam, there is still so much that is good and really beautiful in our world. Just like Linus, we all have needed something that resembles a security blanket, whether we admit it or not. For me, I suppose, it's a wrinkled photograph of Mr. Rogers and, not to sound like Stuart Smalley, that's OK.

After my kids stopped laughing and listened to my explanation for the new wall addition, I think they understood. It's already accomplished two very important feats: it made me smile at old memories and it made them laugh. When you consider how we're all feeling right now, those are two fairly precious, not to be discounted, commodities. I don't even think Fred Rogers would mind.

Readers can e-mail Susie at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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