Good-bye to the old Neighborhood

I imagine he didn’t concern himself much with sweeps week. I seriously doubt that ratings and Nielsen points were his bag.

Sweeping was what he did to get the errant fish food flakes off the table. But only after he’d changed into a comfy pair of sneakers and a sweater.

He was, after all, a cardigan-carrying pioneer of children’s television, and for the 33 years Fred Rogers spent creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he had the distinction of being the last grown man in America who could appeal to the affections of small children without being creepy about it.

I was one of those children. Sprawled on my grandmother’s sculptured avocado green wall-to-wall with my toes curled around the base of the faux wood veneer “early American” console television (based, I imagine, on the actual televisions hand-crafted by our pioneer ancestors).

I must’ve been 3 or 4, fatherless, and I believed, fervently, in Mr. Roger’s kind of life.

Talking ‘to.’ His was a half-hour where a grown-up talked not “at” or “down” but “to” small children.

Thirty minutes of a psuedo-dad (or kindly uncle) who was soothing, calm and had the keys to the trolley.

Man, that was living.

A grown up astute enough to arrive “home” in a suit jacket but not too suave to travel to the Land of Make-Believe and make conversation with a puppet. A guy who took the care and feeding of his goldfish very seriously indeed.

The key, I suppose, was his sincerity.

Adults could watch if they liked, but that was beside the point. It was always about appealing to children.

Even though, the show didn’t shy away from tackling more mature concerns. As in the memorable episode where all the puppets in the Land of Make-Believe realize they are dolls and have a kind of existential crisis about it.

Alas, no puppet Prozac. They cope through caring.

Mail call. Routine was the rule.

Mr. McFeely brought the mail every day and it was always a much-heralded happy time.

Evidently, Mr. Rogers never received a $98 cable bill loaded with questionable pay-per-view orders in his mail.

Such are the halcyon days before our grasp of the plagues of sweepstakes entries, credit card statements and interest compounded daily. Fred knew how to work it.

They say Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is still on the air. I don’t know.

I flip through some 500 channels offering animated Japanese monsters, dancing dinosaurs with more marketing tie-ins than J-Lo has ex-husbands, and even Sesame Street has gone for rap music and politicians making cameo appearances alongside the Muppets.

I don’t see much of Mr. Rogers these days. Still it soothes me somehow to know he’s still out there somewhere.

In TV land you never die.

Perhaps I’m a marginally better person today because I learned to share, stretch my imagination and be a bit kinder to others.

They say a good neighborhood gives a child certain advantages.

Or maybe I wasted too much of my childhood in front of the television. Who knows?

What I do know is that when I recall the time spent in Fred Rogers’ televised company, I remember his boundless respect for an unhurried childhood. Time spent stopping to smell the roses, ride the trolley and making time for make-believe.

As well as the constant affirmation that you are eminently likable “just the way you are.”

Corny? You bet.

Yet 30 years after my time spent in his neighborhood, I have children of my own and I can’t help wishing that we could spend a little more time, if only in spirit, in Mr. Rogers’ kind of place again.

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” Yes, I truly hope I will.

(Kymberly Foster Seabolt still makes time for make-believe. She welcomes comments c/o P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460 or kseabolt@epohi.com.)

About the Author

Warm, witty and just a wee bit warped, Kymberly Foster Seabolt is a native of Kent, Ohio, who survived childhood exposure to disco and grew up to marry and move to the country. Her column weaves her special brand of humor with poignant, entertaining, and honest portrayals of parenting, marriage, and real life. She currently lives in northeastern Ohio with her husband, two children, two dogs, two cats, and numerous dust bunnies who wish to remain nameless. More Stories by Kymberly Foster Seabolt

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