Sunday, March 20, 2011

In the Neighborhood....on World Storytelling Day

Today would have been Fred Rogers' 83rd birthday.   

I had never heard of him, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, or WQED, the PBS station that broadcasts it, until I was 20. That was the summer after the death of my friend and college roommate Betsy's mother, Elaine Ogden. Instead of going home to New Jersey and getting a job to save up for the next semester of school in the fall, I came to stay with her and her dad, Ben, out in Penn Hills. This was so that I could see a knee specialist for an injury I'd had in February. After my first appointment, I found myself on crutches and in a cast from hip to ankle for the next three months.

That drastically cut down on what I could do! Betsy had casually mentioned Daniel S. Strip-ED (never "striped," said as one syllable) Tiger, and Josie Carey and The Children's Corner in talking about shows Betsy had watched as a child growing up in Pittsburgh, but I really hadn't paid much attention. Late one hot afternoon she said, "Let's watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood--you're going to love X-cape the Owl!"

X wasn't on that show, but when I did see her, I did love her....I love owls. I was also charmed by Mr. Rogers' gentle, genine caring about his audience.

And, well, that was that, except for occasionally catchng a glimplse as I flipped channels over the years. I do remember a co-worker once telling me that she was late because she had agreed to walk a friend's dog--and was near QED, having combined that task with an errand, dog on its leash, when she realized that she'd locked herself out of her car. A voice behind her asked, "Are you having a problem?" It was Fred, and he took her inside QED to use a phone to call Triple A. "He was so nice!" she kept saying. What might have been a vexing incident had been transformed for her by his niceness.

I liked that story. So often, many celebrities seem to belie the original reason for our liking them, almost as if the center of who they are becomes consumed by the image that is hyped until they are reduced to a brittle outer shell. But Fred wasn't a Celebrity in that sense at all.

We moved into our home in 1993, on a hot May day. Partway through the afternoon, as I waited for another load of our possessions to arrive, there was a knock on the door. A smiling woman held out a big pitcher of freshly made iced tea and a stack of disposable cups. "Welcome!" she ssid. "I'm Leslie. My husband Don and I live next door."

Don was Chef Brockett--and Fred's best friend for almost forty years. Don Brockett was also an actor in almost every movie filmed in Pittsburgh from Flashdance to Houseguest, half of the hilarious duo Brockett & Barbara, and produced many industrial films and annual revues, Forbidden Pittsburgh. He was a very creative man who collected Noah's Arks and Santa Clauses, and painted naive art, referring to himself as "Grandpa Moses." Occasionally, I'd see him sitting on a corner of his balcony, painting. I am proud to say that we have two of his, a seascape and a religious painting, hanging in our living-room.

Every Christmas, Don and Leslie threw a big party in our building's Party Room, which he also often used for rehearsals, and everyone in the building was invited along with just about everyone else they knew. That first year, my husband, John McDowell and I went in, and when we greeted Leslie, she said, "You have to meet Fred!" Don said the same thing, and a minute later, Leslie introduced us to him. As he shook hands, he said, "I was so sorry to hear about your cat." We knew that the Brocketts were cat-lovers, and we had recently lost Star, one of the two Greatest Cats in the World, just before Thanksgiving. I was surprised that he knew about it. John told him that he'd seen a little Maine Coon female cat at the Pet Pad, but Star had been my cat, so we weren't quite ready yet. Then, of course, someone else wanted to speak with him, and we sat down wtih other neighbors.

One year later, at the next Christmas party, I was going through the buffet line when I heard a familiar voice behind me: "Hello, Barra! Did you and John ever get another cat?"

It was Fred. I was amazed that he remembered our names and the details of the only conversation we'd had, with all the other people he must have met in the intervening year! That kind of memory--and warmth--is a gift.

"Yes, we did," I said. "We got the Maine Coon John fell in love with, and named her Bride [pronounced breed], the Scottish version of St. Bridget--except she's not saintly! But she is keeping our other cat Finnie company."

That was the last party. Don died of a sudden heart attack in 1995, and Leslie established the Don Brockett Memorial Scholarship to benefit students majoring in theatre at Point Park and Chatham Universities..

If you come to Pittsburgh, the set of his house from the show is now one of the permanent exhibits at the Children's Museum, and you also go see a statue of Fred on the North Shore. Mr.McFeeley, the Speedy Delivery mailman, did a presentation about Family Communications, Fred's company, when the National Storytelling Network had its national conference here in 2006.

As a Presbyterian minister in broadcasting for children, Fred's charge included teaching them the importance of stories as a means of learning and understanding the world around and inside them, and in telling their own stories.

Today is also World Storytelling Day.

The theme for this year is "Water," and considering the disaster in Japan, and efforts to help them, if you hear of any storytelling events meant to benefit such efforts as a fundraiser in the next weeks or months, I hope that you will contribute--and listen!

In keeping with their theme, here is a story about the tsunami that hit Indonesia a few years ago: The authorities had a mammoth task to check on its 17,508 islands and over 238 million people afterwards. That's why it took over a week for anyone to go to a remote island where a very small tribe lived. As they brought their boat into shore, they could see that the village was badly damaged. But as they searched, they didn't find any bodies or livestock carcasses. Going inland, they found all 96 Onge (and their animals) up in the highlands. How had they known? Elders told them that it is part of their lore to observe ocean conditions. Old people had noticed changes in the sea, and their traditional stories told them what to expect and what to do. This was true of some other tribes as well.

Andaman Islands, Indonesia

Please share a story with someone today!


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