Please Won’t You Be … My Neighbor

A generation’s most beloved children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, turned 50 last week. I turned 41.

I am of the generation of fortunate children to have grown up with Mr. Rogers as our neighbor. Every afternoon and every evening, as soon as the xylophone music of the show’s theme song would ring out from the speaker of our color television enshrined in laminate oak like an analog monument, the outside world disappeared and I was at home in the neighborhood.

Mister Rogers would always end just at my bedtime, and after he swapped his inside shoes for his outside shoes and took off his cardigan and put back on his jacket, I would kiss the TV screen before he exited and say, “Good night, Mr. Rogers.” It’s one of my earliest memories. I must have been about three-and-a-half then, around the time long-term memory kicks in for most of us.

Last week, in addition to the birthday wishes posted to my Facebook page, social media was suddenly flooded with quotes, videos, memes, and memories of Mr. Rogers remembering the kind, gentle man who made each of us individually feel like we were special and appreciated. The week of my birthday is also, now a tradition, the week when I take a detour in Rochester for a drive-by of the same grassy knoll on the side of Rounseville Road to see if I could spot any spring flowers. On February 23, as I have now for the past four years or so since I started at The Wanderer, I spotted the first crocuses to emerge from the winter-worn ground of that roadside hill. I counted four.

The crocus is often the first flower to emerge at the end of winter, a symbol of the approach of spring. We see a crocus, we think spring. I also see a crocus and I think … “Betty.”

February 19 was the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I have such fond memories of the gentle, kind man who encouraged me to be myself while assuring me I would still be liked for it. While reading Fred Rogers quotes last week, I couldn’t help but hear his calm, slow, gentle voice in my mind as my eyes teared-up in appreciation of the beauty of his words and what he stood for, and how it feels today looking back as an adult grateful that the child in me got to know that wonderful man. But when I think of my neighbor Mr. Rogers, I also instantly think of my childhood next door neighbor Betty.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine; could you be mine?

I was a little girl who spent a lot of time alone. I think I enjoyed or at least didn’t mind that for most of the day my two older brothers would be at school and I would be home with my crayons, my dolls, my books, my imagination … I liked playing outside in our great big backyard that was an open half-acre abutting the woods and seemed even more massive to a child. Sometimes when I looked over to the yard next door, Betty would be outside with her Dachshund Milly. I’d run over to my Mom hanging the laundry on the line or call out to her inside the house, “Mom, I’m going to Betty’s!”

“Hi Jeannie,” the old woman would say in that soft, kind, gentle way she always spoke. “How are you today? Would you like to help me count how many crocuses have bloomed around the yard?”

Looking back, Betty probably wasn’t really that old. Perhaps it was that I was so young, or that she didn’t color her white hair, dressed in 1960s-style elastic waist polyester pants with floral patterns, always wore a soft cardigan sweater over a button-up blouse, and no-name-brand tennis shoes. Maybe it’s also because she wore glasses, moved and spoke slowly, was nice, and just wasn’t like the other adults in my life.

Whenever I went over to visit with Betty in her yard, I never felt like my presence was a bother or inconvenience. She always made me feel like she enjoyed my company. She’d always find something to talk about or something to teach me or show me. She’d let me pick violets that grew by her clothesline or give treats to Milly. If I was really lucky, she would let me help her with one of my favorite tasks – sprinkling the dog poop with white, powdery lime from a paper Haagen-Dazs cup before she scooped them up with her super-duper pooper-scooper, a metal serrated-edge bin that could get the deed done without having to bend over and use your hands.

The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.

Sometimes we would just sit in the shade at her picnic table and talk. As I grew and started school, the topics we discussed increased in scope – friends, stuff I was learning or read, my bourgeoning interests. She sincerely listened to everything I said, followed-up with further questions, and always smiled back at me. “That’s nice, Jean. I’m so glad you’re doing so well in school.”

In the colder months, Betty would invite me inside for a ginger ale with a splash of cranberry juice and a piece of ribbon candy. We’d sit together at the kitchen table while Milly’s claws would click-clack on the linoleum beneath the table.

Whenever I sat with Betty at her table, the outside world would dissolve away and I was at home in Betty’s kitchen.

As different as we are from one another … we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.

            One time in Betty’s kitchen I never forgot was that visit when I told her of a nightmare I had of a nuclear war with Russia. I told her how scary it was that bombs were on their way and of how scared I was of the Russians.

“I hate the Russians,” I said.

“Jean!” she said, subdued but astonished. “If a little Russian girl came to the door and wanted you to come play, you wouldn’t play with her?”

I stared at the door, processing Betty’s question. The notion that a Russian little girl is no different than I or any other American girl blew my mind.

“Yes, I would,” I said, having been shown that fear is no excuse for hatred.

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.

Eventually I outgrew watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And I was probably about ten years old when Betty moved away. The memory of that late afternoon and the deep sadness I felt on my front porch – waving goodbye to her as she left our neighborhood for the last time, her sitting in the front passenger seat with Milly on her lap, waving back at me – is as vivid to me now as the moment it happened. I was sobbing. I am conscious of it now, but the child I was at the time didn’t recognize that the sorrow, the panic, the squeezing in my chest and the physical pain it caused was my very first broken heart.

All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are…. Ten seconds of silence.

Fred Rogers spoke those words during his Lifetime Achievement Emmy acceptance speech in 1997. He died exactly 15 years ago on this very day, February 27, in 2003.

As a child my first neighbors were Mr. Rogers and Betty; the ones who made me feel appreciated and liked for who I am, always speaking to me – not like I was a child – like I was a person.

Every year when I see those first crocuses, I still think of Betty. And when Fred Rogers asks me to think for ten seconds about the ones who helped me become who I am today I still think of Betty. The one who counted crocuses with me every spring. One of them, like Fred Rogers put it, who ‘loved me into being.’

This Imperfect Life

By Jean Perry


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