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Mister Rogers Makes Me Cry
by Forrest Seymour
It was not the first time Mister Rogers made me cry. Some time ago, as I cruised the shelves of our local independent bookstore, I came across a book of letters which Fred Rogers has received over the years from the children and parents who watch his TV show, and the responses he's sent. Apparently he takes great pride in responding to these missives, he has a small staff to help him with the chore, and I quickly concluded that his pride was well placed. His responses were insightful, practical and frequently moving. The book is called, "Dear Mister Rogers, does it ever rain in your neighborhood?" And it indeed brought a shocking rain of tears to me. So when a couple of months ago I found myself in tears again, this time as I watched Fred Rogers on TV, I was surprised, but not shocked.
Trying to explain my burst of tears some days later, I told Ted, an old friend and new adoptive father, "Mister Rogers is just too damned honest about emotions and love," my sarcasm hiding my confusion. We were sipping Sanka and soy milk, and watching our daughters play as my two month old son sucked my little finger in my lap.
We commiserated then about the lack of conversation in our homes as boys of thirty years ago about such topics as emotions and love, topics that now as men and fathers can seem so abstract and distant. Gazing out the window of the home in the woods that Ted and his wife have build, and to which they have now brought their daughter, he remarked at how surprised he was to have recently hear his father's voice and words coming from his mouth. I smiled as I remembered that disconcerting phenomenon when I first became a father, glad that I felt more myself in this role now with my second.
"I think that a second child is less evocative than the first, less disturbing to my balance," I confidently told Ted, as my son shifted in my lap, becoming less and less satisfied with just a finger when what he really wanted was to nurse. He sniffed, and considered a cry.
And then I remembered my burst of tears just a few days before, and of how it had followed a rageful rant on my part, a loss of control I find it too easy to forget. I was caring for both kids and something had snapped, it was suddenly too much for me, and I yelled my frustration and pain out on my daughter. Perhaps this was my father's voice coming from me, but after this many years as a father myself I probably deserve most of the credit.
It was Mister Rogers who helped us heal that rift. When his show came on, my daughter acquiesced to sit in my lap as he went through his predictable day, his world within a world story-line, his brief moral lesson, and then he picked up. He picked up the things he'd gotten out that day, his toys and videos, his blocks. And at this my daughter got up from my lap and silently tidied up her blocks, without a word, one eye on Fred Rogers, one on her task. This simple demonstration of the power of modeling when it comes from a calm, self-possessed adult, and my daughter's willingness to follow, without being asked, to help out in a way that I'd not though of but which directly addressed the chaos that had led me to rage only a few minutes before, her freedom to give, and Fred Rogers' freedom to give, brought the tears to my eyes, and I sat crying on the couch, Mister Rogers singing good-by, my daughter en rapt by his calm and love.
Though I had not seen Fred Rogers' show in many years, I was surprised that day at how familiar it felt, the characters, the flow. I realized as I wiped away the tears that, though his show had not been on in my young childhood, it had been when my brother, seven years my junior, was young. I think that I must have found Mister Rogers back then to be too threatening for my comfort, my world-weary ten year old countenance. His accepting demeanor, which comes through the TV and in his letters, while I find it admirable now, was probably too strange back then for me to find comfort in. In the experience that Ted and I shared, our families did not speak of emotion and love; Mister Rogers spoke a foreign tongue.
It has taken me thirty years to learn this language, to acquire some ability to bridge the gap between me and what can seem so abstract and distant, though sometimes I still forget. Becoming a father again, to a son, is not less emotionally disturbing that before, if anything it is more so. Despite what the propaganda suggests, a second child is not less work, it is more, more than twice as much, and I suspect that goes for the emotional disruption as well. My son is four months old now, and I am beginning to sense the challenge ahead for me to show him how to speak of emotions and love, to teach him from a calm and accepting place, to demonstrate within difficulty how to give, and for me to remember my responsibility as a father to do this, as Mister Rogers has done for me and for a generation. It is no wonder that we call him, "Mister" Rogers.
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