In the afternoons, my babysitter, Ms. Mae, made a special spot for me on her floral couch.
She kept the blinds closed, even on sunny days. A thing I can’t stand as an adult but appreciated as a kid because it made watching TV feel fancy. Ms. Mae laid out a blanket across two cushions and brought me cut-up American cheese slices and crackers. The perfect setup for my favorite, make-believe neighbor, Mister Rogers.
Every afternoon, for three years, went like this. He taught me how crayons, footballs, and denim jeans are made in factories. He taught me how much food to feed fish in a tank. He taught me how to tie my shoes and, along with Mr. McFeely, how to address an envelope. Ms. Mae and I loved Mister Rogers. I learned later that she continued to watch the show every afternoon long after she stopped babysitting me.
As a teenager, I lived in rural Appalachia and had little to no understanding of what the World Trade Centers were on September 11th. All I knew was that I watched planes strike the side of buildings, explosions, and people jumping to their death on live television. It felt like the end of the world to me. An ever-faithful, comforting Mister Rogers from my childhood released statements that calmed my heart.
He was one of only a handful of adults who could provide that level of reassurance. He made me feel loved, secure, heard, and accepted. As an adult, it felt like I was alone in my adoration for this man who partially raised me through a glass screen.
None of my peers appeared to have the same deeply-held love for this show and this man that I did. I didn’t care. I freely and proudly admitted how much I loved Mister Rogers, though the sing-songy stories I could recall from memory often elicited chuckles from my friends.
Many years later, when my first child was stillborn, I somehow longed for something that made me feel as calm and soothed as Mister Rogers. I found myself turning on old episodes for background noise on all those nights that I couldn’t seem to find sleep. One night, on a whim, I launched a blog and poured my heart out on it. It shocked me at how open and honest I was. I had always been so private before.
Something kept telling me that I would not make it through the heartache and pain without expressing all my emotions. So, I did just that, eventually creating a community of other bereaved mothers, too.
People told me I was brave, but I wasn’t. I was honest. I wasn’t sure where this sure of openness came from, but I think it was all those times Mister Rogers cooed from the TV at me, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”.
After this, when Tom Hanks played Mister Rogers in 2019, I thought it was the end of the era for this TV show of my childhood. I watched while unexpected tears filled my eyes nearly from start to finish. Then, just a few days ago, my kid-brother called me up to tell me a story about how he had made his soon-to-be wife cry with a song selection he sent her.
“Don’t laugh at me,” he said, “but ‘It’s You I Like’ will be played at our wedding because you used to sing it to me. You know, from ‘Mister Rogers’?”
I did know, and I was floored that he remembered. I didn’t laugh and, instead, cried a little. I was shocked that it had held such an important impact on him all these years later. It reminded me that we all have something to give and to share, just like Mister Rogers always said.
Fred Rogers would be 93 on March 20th this year. He taught us all about mindfulness, forgiveness, acceptance, love, and kindness.
In celebration of his life and commitment to children and families across the globe, here are five quotes from the neighborhood I still (and we all should) use today:
1. “We get so wrapped up in numbers in our society. The most important thing is that we are able to be one-to-one, you and I with each other at the moment. If we can be present to the moment with the person that we happen to be with, that’s what’s important.”
2. “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”
3. “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”
4. “When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.”
5. “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
“Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” may have been the least likely famous television show. Little to no special effects, a plot that stayed the same, educational programming, and an unassuming, timid Fred Rogers.
But I, for one, am so grateful he existed. The lessons he instilled in generations of children will long reverberate. That is worthy of celebration, birthday or not.
Here is a video of some of his most-beloved moments: