This isn’t some weird tribute to Mary Tyler Moore. Or is it, in some weird way? I guess that would be left up to you to decide.
Let me start with the fact that my mother and I had a very contentious relationship when I was younger. I’ve touched on this before, because it’s a huge part of who I was, and ultimately who I’ve become.
She wasn’t the best mother, and to be honest I put her thru every trial a teenager possibly could, which I guess makes me not the best kid. Eventually things came to a raging boil, simmered, only to boil over again and cause a rift between us that I’m not proud to say lasted nearly 7 years. Stupid Pride had a lot to do with that. As adults we were finally able to mend things to the point where we actually became best friends. Unfortunately she ended up dying less than a decade later, so it wasn’t the lifetime friendship I had hoped for. As people – we cherished one another. She was vibrant, and intelligent and funnier than most people I’ve ever known. She was also dark and unforgiving and controlling and at times; cruel. You can imagine as mother and daughter, we had some serious issues.
The irony in some of the issues, was the inability that we both shared; simply to let go. I think with her gone now all these years, I have let go of the issues themselves, but there remains this residue that sometimes still haunts me in weird ways. Not literally haunt me like my Ghost post. Just the memories. I can be taken back to them to quickly, and I can feel them like I am living them all over again.
There are certain things that I equate with my mother. Cheap Gallo white wine with ice cubes. Big beautiful smiles. Laughter until you cry. Elizabeth Taylor. Elvis. Willie Nelson. Green shag carpets. Menthol cigarettes. And Mary Tyler Moore.
Both of them had very wide smiles that overtook their faces in a beautiful way. The shorter dark hair, and big dark eyes. The tiny little physique’s they both had as they aged that made their heads almost look like they were too big for their bodies.
I think that for a lot of children of my generation, the television was the focal point of family time. Most homes didn’t have TV’s in every room, and of course the obvious lack of internet left you with few options in the evenings outside of reading and TV. My mom didn’t eat dinner with us, so TV time was sometimes the only time we spent with one another.
TV wasn’t a luxury per say, but it wasn’t something that you just turned on when you walked in the door. We weren’t really supposed to watch it after school, but being latch key kids we learned how to get around the “supposed to”’s in our life. While there wasn’t designated TV time, it didn’t usually go on til about 7 or 7:30. When she turned it on.
In our household, we were reminded quite often that we did not live in a democracy where our vote counted. This included TV programs. She wasn’t an ogre about things; she conceded to some of the shows we wanted, but I was probably the only kid I knew who wasn’t even allowed to watch Laverne & Shirley, because my mother couldn’t stand the sound of Penny Marshall’s voice. This also meant I watched a lot of adult themed television.
Every year as I turned one year older I was permitted to stay up an extra half hour later. On weekends I could sometimes stretch it out a little more. So by the time I was about 8 I think I must have been able to stretch things to about 10:00 on a Saturday night. I don’t for the life of me recall what came on TV before 9PM on a Saturday night, but I know that between 9-11 it was a ritual to watch MTM, followed by The Bob Newhart Show and finally Carol Burnett for an hour. I didn’t achieve that Carol Burnett status until probably the age of 10 or so.
I loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I loved it like most little kids loved The Brady Bunch. I should have wanted to be Marcia, but instead I wanted to be Mary. I sang the theme song when it came on. I wanted a little studio apartment with a sunken living room and ceiling to floor windows just like hers. I wanted to hang a giant G on the wall. I wanted a hidden bathroom only accessible thru what must have been a lavish walk-in closet that I never ever got to see. I wanted her cool wardrobe. I did not want to work for someone mean like Lou, but I did want a friend like Murray and Rhoda. I understood Mary was single, and I understood that if my mother hadn’t had kids, she probably would have a life very much like Mary Richards. Most of my mom’s friends were men, and they were graphic artists that she met at work. They stayed in my life for a lifetime, just like Ted and Murray and Lou did. My mother had a rocking wardrobe, with the exception of the knee high stockings she wore with pantsuits that left little indents in her legs when she took them off. Mary Richards wouldn’t have worn knee high nylons. She would have worn L’eggs that came in the little plastic egg, even on days with a pantsuit.
The only thing I didn’t want was her hair. It was always too big for my taste. But I didn’t want my mom’s hair for the same reasons, so they had that in common as well.
The equation between the love of the character and show, and the comparisons between my own mom didn’t escape me as a child. The fact that she and I were still in the adoration phase of mother and daughter helped cement that. I loved any time with her, and even if it meant her propping her legs on me while I massaged and scratched her legs and feet it was worth it. My mother was as beautiful and cool as Mary Richards. I knew to keep quiet and hold the questions for commercials. The only question I ever had was to ask what a hooker was. Her silence before explaining stands with me more, than how she might have actually explained this to a 9-year old.
Eventually even the best sitcoms die out and by the time the show ended things were still good between her and I, but maybe I didn’t value the time with her as much as the show. Even Mary has moved onto a new apartment. One that I never warmed up to as much as that cool studio with the ceiling high windows and coveted sunken living room. Perfect metaphor.
Fast forward a few years and TMTMS is still too young to be in syndication. Things are just barely starting to unravel between my mother and I. You would have to look very closely at the seams to see the ripple of threads that are unwinding themselves. My eyes quietly roll a little bit more than they used to when I’m getting reprimanded. It’s definitely the calm before the storm.
By 1980 things were chaotic between her and I. I mean BAD. Hormones and anguish are running thru me. Mary Richards is long gone, but this new character has come out in this dark movie titled Ordinary People. Beth. For as much as this innocent little girl saw Mary Richards in her beautiful sweet stylish mother, Beth was the embodiment of her mother now.
Teenager daughters can see and amplify every flaw in their own mothers, and when things are unsettled, they most certainly do. My mother, along with denied alcoholism, had exaggerated control issues, which only intensified and made her appear more aloof and cold.
I cannot tell you after seeing that movie how jaw-dropping the similarities were.. If you aren’t familiar with the character or the movie, Beth is a very cold, and controlling woman who I have to say has a lot of shit on her plate. Death of one son. Suicide attempt of another. Her inability to emotionally connect with her surviving son is what hit so deep with me, because this was shortly – a year — after my own teen suicide attempt. And that was my mom on the screen. Denial, coldness, inability to own up to her own part – it was a sucker punch of a character for me.If I was a boy I would have been Timothy Hutton.
How ironic that through my life, two characters that stand out so strongly for me are funhouse mirror examples of my mother, and are played by the same actress. Of course in retrospect I can identify that these are characters who both share similarities with my mom, not just during different phases of her life, but different viewpoints of my life. During both of those times; good and bad, I saw my mother. Deeply flawed and wonderfully relevant. The face that goes with both of these emotions —- both of these strong moments of memory — is Mary Tyler Moore.
When she died, all of THIS sort of came back to me.
It’s interesting because in reading about her since her death, I’ve read that she was really more like her Mary Richards character than anything. I was happy to read that. The Beth character sort of still frightens me, because it brings me back to a very dark and ugly point in my life. She went on to say that the only thing missing between her and Richards was the thread of anger that MTM carried with her, from her own childhood demons.
Interestingly, in reality MTM was also a drinker, until she realized it was killing her. My mom didn’t get that memo until it was too late. This is where the sarcasm font would really work.
The characters Mary played, both good and bad (in my psyche) had something in common. Strength. And the character my mother portrayed had the same. She passed it on to her only daughter, and I’ve passed it to both of mine. Maybe ultimately that is what I saw each time. A strong sensible single woman trying to make it on her own, and a dark flawed parent holding onto whatever strength she might have left in any manner she knows how.
I came across a page today that listed 12 quotes a millennial should know about MTM, because she was in a way one of the many pioneers for the women’s movement. She showed that marriage doesn’t have to be the end goal. That we can grow and learn to take care of ourselves as individuals. Even her shows theme song is played at many women’s rally’s, I read.
This quote stood out to me the most, because it honestly reminds me of something my mother would have said. 😉
“You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.”- Mary Tyler Moore
Rest in Peace MTM. I guess this was sort of tribute after all.