This week, the first trailer for the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was released. Set in 1993, it is the true story of a writer’s odyssey, of sorts, as he did a piece about Fred Rogers, the creator and eponymous hero of millions of children for his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Of course, Tom Hanks is playing Fred Rogers. Who else would dare? Who else is everyman, able to seamlessly zip into a character and become that character without fail? Who else is worthy to go to the ultimate land of Make-Believe and pretend to be a man so universally loved and cherished in the hearts of young and old? It had to be Hanks. You can watch the trailer here.
My eyes were massive gobs of wetness about 15 seconds in, when Mr. Hanks began to sing the song that inspired the title of this movie. If you know about my eyes and how few, actual tears I can make, this was somewhat of a major event for me. Suddenly, I was 3 again.
I’ve told this story before, to a select number of people. They no doubt felt really sorry for me when I did, but that can’t be helped, I suppose. When people hear something particularly sad or completely pathetic, their empathetic hearts respond.
So, yeah; when I was a little girl, I thought Fred Rogers was my father.
Yep. This guy. The Mister Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I wasn’t a stupid child; my mother and grandmother constantly challenged my little brain with knowledge. I was enrolled in preschool at age 2, because of my neck condition and the need to have physical therapy weekly from the month I was born in 1967. Preschool was a “perk” of being a patient of Shriners Hospital and Crippled Children. Crippled Children was a part of the Easter Seals program and the victim of the time when political correctness was not yet a thing. If the image that name conjures is that of a bunch of kids in wheelchairs, assorted body braces, and other walking aids gimping it across a field to a finish line and the arms of their proud parents (and then having cake) that was pretty accurate. We were always being set up for photo ops at events we were invited to, be it an amusement park trip, a circus, or Luncheon With Santa. It is now properly-titled CARE For Children, and has really branched out in providing services not just for the physically impaired child, but for the mentally impaired as well. You can check out their website here, if you want. It meant what it said; we were a group of children in the county who suffered from varied birth defects – from my particular defect called acute torticollis, to various other maladies involving the spine, limb malformations, club and flat feet, cleft palates – and we were treated by doctors who traveled to Bradford from Erie, diagnosing and working with the two pediatricians in the area. Trips to Shriners Hospital weren’t uncommon for those who needed procedures; I was a lucky one, receiving all my treatment right at the Crippled Children Clinic, located in an old building that once served as the hospital’s laundry facility. We were always “going to clinic” and I both abhorred and loved it, because my therapist, Mrs. Smith, was the nicest lady ever.
My memory of the place is dim, yet will never leave me; it was dark, antiseptic, and dilapidated, with very long, cavernous hallways that echoed with the cries of children in pain. Wooden benches lined those halls, where we would sit as we awaited our appointments. The doors had frosted glass and would open and close with hollow, metallic sounds that constantly reverberated through those yawning catacombs. Perhaps they weren’t as big as I recall, but I was tiny when I visited them the most; an infant and then a toddler. Everything is massive when you are small.
My condition, acute torticollis, is difficult to explain. The actual name is Congenital Muscular Torticollis, or CMT. No one knows how it forms; it could be genetic, or the way I lay in my mother’s womb, or there could have been trauma somehow. If you want to read about the fuckery of this condition in scientific jargon, check out this link. I still suffer from acute bouts of stiffness, pain, and limited mobility. My cerebrospinal MRI is a diagram of horror.
In any event, the SCM (sternocleidomastoid) muscle in my neck was shortened and in spasm, causing my head to tilt to the left side and drawing my chin to my shoulder. In my case, it was so severe that it was noticed immediately, and my pediatrician (bless you, Dr. Silverstine) referred me to Crippled Children right away. There are other physical characteristics of this condition, including the oh-so -attractive -sounding facial asymmetry (one side of my face is a teensy bit smaller than the other) and inability to turn one’s head. There was no way I was going to hold my head up or be able to turn it, so the decision was made to start physical therapy right away. I would have to be seen a minimum of once a week to stretch my neck until I was a year old, and then frequently throughout my preschool years until it was decided that they had adequately given me a future with more mobility. My future mobility would always be in question, because nobody knows when a recurrence of spasm will happen. How I sleep, what position my neck is in, a sneeze, and even stepping onto uneven ground can set off “the neck”. I have always been told “You could lose mobility at any time,” and so I have simply lived with the episodes, hoping for relief each time it happens.
I don’t remember all of the excruciating neck-stretching therapies; my mother recalled that I was in pain all the time because the doctors were racing a clock that said that if they didn’t lengthen and develop strength in my SCM before I was a year old, I would likely never have it. She abhorred the use of a pacifier and yet, it was the only thing that comforted me (until I was 4 years old, which literally means I sucked it up) and she and my grandmother did the best they could to keep my neck muscles strengthening at home. I can only imagine the stress they were under; in nearly every photo of me as a baby, I’m either tearful or bawling. The smiles would come later, but I always looked like I might burst into tears at any given time. I could not have been much of a bundle of joy.
Enter preschool, and with that, trained preschool teachers/physical therapists who worked all of our muscle groups, including our brains. During the day, I was being challenged at preschool; in the mid-to-late afternoons, my butt was parked in front of the television to watch Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Zoom. It’s no wonder that I could read and write before I was 4; tying my shoes was a breeze and I remember entering Kindergarten and being amazed at the kids who couldn’t do any of those things. I was smart, sure, but I had been given a head start that lots of really poor kids don’t get, due to my birth defect. You Christians would say that The Lord Giveth and He Taketh Away; I say thanks, Mom, for taking advantage of every opportunity given. I may have been a welfare baby eating government cheese, but I was well-educated.
Anyway, enter my “dad.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood followed Sesame Street. Don’t ask me why I got it into my head that he was my dad; I just did. I was perhaps 2-3 when this thought formulated. I didn’t spend much time with other kids at this point, so most of my knowledge of the nuclear family came from brief observations while out in the public and by watching television. I never called him Daddy, nor did I tell anyone who I thought he was; he just was to me. This guy came through a door every day at the same time and he talked to me as if I was the most precious person in the world to him. That he was on tv was not important; I still thought that the music I heard on the radio in the kitchen and in the car was being performed live at some amazing place called The Radio Station. Santa also visited The Radio Station every night from 4:00pm – 4:30pm during the frenzied few weeks before Christmas, too. The REAL Santa, that is.
It never occurred to me to question why my dad was on the television; I just knew that he was, and that he was very important. Some kids got their daddies at home every night, but my dad was so busy, this was how he did it. It was like a secret he and I shared, and I kept him hidden inside my tender, baby heart. I truly believed that he was coming through that television to speak to me and me alone. That my mother never spoke of him except to say “It’s time for Mister Rogers!” didn’t concern me. When you spend lots and lots of time waiting for doctors and laying on examination tables, you become adept at using your imagination to stave off fear or boredom. The Land of Make-Believe was just another mindscape for me.
There was such a magic about and around Fred Rogers, though, wasn’t there? He spoke directly to the children in his audience. He had an uncanny knack for being engaging and thoroughly engaging them with his easy mannerisms; he was the strongest, and gentlest, and most trusted male figure in my life. Even my uncles carried about them presences that left me slightly on edge and wary. I’d seen them spank my cousins and heard them raise their voices in anger; my dad never, ever did that. My dad in the land of Make-Believe was so much better than that. That he couldn’t possibly – because he was on tv – never, ever occurred to me. I lived my life trying to be good, because if I didn’t behave, he would find out. And I knew that I couldn’t stand it if I ever saw disappointment in his kind eyes.
The fact that my dad was only “with” me for 30 minutes a day was troubling to me, but I tried to rationalize as only a toddler/preschooler can; he was just Very Busy in the way my grandma was Very Busy fitting up lighters at the Zippo plant every day. It was like when Mommy was Very Busy doing housework, and so I must busy myself with my toys and my record player and not give her any trouble. I knew that I must make the best use of the time. I sat, my eyes never leaving the screen, as he talked to me about being kind, accepting and respecting everyone, and being as helpful and loving as possible. I learned about different jobs, about different countries, about how my feelings were as important as anyone else’s, and about how special I was to him. He sang, he talked to Daniel, and Lady Elaine , and X. I knew that the Land of Make-Believe was just play, but I’m not sure I ever grasped that the puppets weren’t real. They were just people he talked to, and part of our cherished circle. Through those 30 minute visits, I learned so much about sincerity, generosity, forgiveness, and honesty. He never disguised the fact that the world was a big, scary place; he just understood how to explain things perfectly, in ways that a preschooler grasped.
The worst part of my day, back then, was at the end of every visit, when my dad in the Land of Make-Believe would put his work shoes on again and remove his sweater, changing back into his coat. Tears would stream down my face and I would desperately try to memorize his face while he sang “It’s Such A Good Feeling”, and when he would tell me that there was nobody like me in the world but me, I would feel my heart break in two. I would plead with his image on the screen, “Please don’t go. Please, just stay.” I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday, how that felt. Many nights, I would run into my bedroom and crawl up onto my bed, sobbing with a heartache searingly genuine, convinced that tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough. Tomorrow, I would see him again and everything would be alright. Tomorrow, I would tell him just how much I missed him when he was away.
And then, tomorrow would come and I would just be so happy to see him again that I would forget how his departure had broken my heart the night before when he went away, and that he would have to go again tonight. Every night was a sort of screwed-up, preschooler’s version of Groundhog Day that ended with me, a sobbing heap on my bed or with my face turned inward to face the back of the couch while I wished for him to magically reappear, saying he had more time tonight. Then it would be dinnertime, and then bath time, and I might drift off to sleep, thinking about the things I needed to tell my dad from the Land of Make -Believe tomorrow.
I don’t know when I realized that Fred Rogers wasn’t my dad; it was probably around the time I turned 4 and I was going to Head Start. I was a little more mature and beginning to understand things like television and how music was on records – like mine at home – and that deejays played them at the radio station, and that Santa had helpers who pretended to be him while he was busy at the North Pole. I know that I felt terribly silly and that by the time I was 5, I avoided “baby shows” like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Now? It was all about Gilligan’s Island, The Partridge Family, and The Brady Bunch. These were the innocent years, before Emergency! fascinated me with fire and car crashes and human suffering; before Kolchak: The Night Stalker captivated me with various creatures of the night; and before Alice Cooper
terrified thrilled me with a performance of “Unfinished Sweet” on The Smothers Brothers variety show in 1973. Fred Rogers would have perhaps been perplexed by me, his “daughter”, and my fascination with vampires and demons and things that went bump in the night. I like to think he would have sat down with me and watched, waiting to ask me how I felt about what we’d watched together until after the show was over. I don’t think he would have rushed me to a psychiatrist. I think he would have recognized that I was just a kid who was fascinated with scary things. I’d faced a few when I was little; this was just a natural progression. I don’t think there was a judgmental bone in his body.
I don’t need to psychoanalyze why I filled the role of father with Fred Rogers. He was the most solid, steady man in my life at that point. I used to be embarrassed by this, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that having a make-believe father who was the king of make-believe and making children aware that they were important even though they were small, was much better than what my reality could have been. Fred Rogers was the best dad in the world.
I know that I will cry when I see this movie, and I am absolutely fine with that. My dad from the Land of Make-Believe taught me, and all the millions of kids who tuned in to share 30 minutes a day with him, that it is okay to cry.
Thank you, Mister Rogers, for making a little girl’s painful, lonely world so much brighter with your gentle smile and your easy ways. Thank you for coaxing out the empath in her, and praising her individuality. I wish that I could have told you: There was no one in the world quite…like…you.