Monday, May 10, 2010

Fred Rogers and A Simple Hello

New York

I have been going to Nantucket for nearly twenty years. In the early years, I stayed near the town center on Nantucket Bay in a waterfront townhouse with the clink,clink,clink of halyards hitting steel masts in the night air. Most days, I would ride my bike to the closest beach and spend the day there loving the solitude. I explored other parts of the island by bike and car.

It soon became apparent that the best, most remote part of the island was Madaket where fisherman had constructed cottages a century ago with sturdy fireplaces and thick planked floors.
Beginning in 1999, I rented a little cottage facing Madaket Bay, home of piping plovers, oystercatchers, and moored boats bobbing silently in the breeze outside my window.
Next door was Fred Rogers' house, a funny mishmash of a house that his father had built years ago.
One afternoon, I went down to the bay armed with binoculars to spot the amazing birds on the tip of the island, a small book of May Sarton's poems and my journal. Coming toward me on the beach was a tallish, thin man with his bathing suit on, a pale orange bath towel draped over his shoulders. It was Fred Rogers out for his daily swim.
I looked up at him from under the brim of my floppy sunhat and smiled. " Hello, there. Enjoy your swim. "
"Thank you." He smiled, paused. "May I ask --are you are a writer?"
" I ...I guess I am," I stammered. "I have done advertising copy and published a couple of professional journal articles."
"I see. That's wonderful. May I introduce myself? I'm Fred Rogers."
"Nice to meet you. I am Mary Catherine Bolster." I stood up to shake his hand.
"Well, Mrs. Bolster, it is so nice to know you."
" I just want you to know something, Mr. Rogers."
"Fred, I want you to know how important you were to my children's lives when they were little boys. I can still see them sitting in front of the little 15 inch, black and white screen, watching you and King Friday and all of those wonderful characters you brought to life."
We talked for awhile about poetry, religion and the search for meaning. About life as a journey. About seeking meaning in literature and poetry. I told him about my pilgrimage to Spain, trekking the medieval 500 mile path to the tomb of St. James in Santiago.

As he walked away, I was struck with his depth and lack of pretense, and how totally he seemed to be the same man, the same persona, as the one I had watched so many years ago with my sons.

Later that same week, I tucked a copy of Patricia Hamel's book, Virgin Time, in his mailbox with a note: Hope you enjoy this. I mentioned her book about seeking meaning when we spoke. Best, MC.

My cell phone rang soon after. " Mary Catherine? This is Fred Rogers. I just called to thank you for the wonderful book, and see if you would like to come over and have some tea with Joanne and me?"

That was the beginning of my acquaintance with Fred, and his wife Joanne, and my memories of sitting on the back deck of the Crooked House drinking tea in the afternoon or having dinner at the modest dining table off of the kitchen.

All my family and friends were excited about Fred living next door to my little cottage. One by one, I introduced them to Fred. Beginning with my son, Ben.

It so happens that Ben's birthday is in early September. He asked to meet Mr. Rogers when he and his girlfriend came to stay with me.
"Do you think he'd come over for my birthday?"
"I'll ask him."
Fred did come over for Ben's birthday. He walked around the corner of the cottage in his yellow windbreaker and said: "Where's the birthday boy?"
Ben beamed with appreciation.

Each year until Fred died, Ben ( sometimes solo, sometimes with girlfriends ) would come to visit me, and I would invite the Rogers' to his birthday--and Fred and, sometimes, Joanne or sometimes their houseguests, would come, too.

One year, Ben and I were invited to Fred's house, Ben played guitar for Fred.Fred took snapshots of all of us ( which he sent to me later with a lovely note. ) Then, he took us on a tour of the house . In his tiny studio, he sat down at his Roland keyboard and began playing "Neighborhood" songs. I listened as Ben told Fred about his career at MTV and Fred talked a bit about his take on pop culture. I watched my son lean in to this man's words, his gestures.

Fred had such a gift for making a difference with the available moment. After 9/11, Ben did a benefit concert for the victims' families which Fred knew about. The night of the benefit, I got a voicemail on my cell. " Mary Catherine, this is Fred Rogers. I know Ben is performing tonight for the victims, and I called the place but no one answered. Would you please tell him that I hope it goes well?"

After Fred died, there was a tiny, inconsolable hole in my heart. I guess I thought there would be endless summers of tea and birthdays overlooking the bay. I wrote Joanne a long note and realized (as I believe we do when something wonderful is suddenly, permanently taken away from us ) that my life was changed by this man's generosity and humility--and I would miss him terribly.

Soon after Fred's death, Ben decided to do a documentary about him. It was, I suppose it was a way for him to get his arms around Fred's death, and perhaps other things known only to Ben. He enlisted the help of his brother, Chris ( full time film editor and father of 3 kids under 6 ), as co-director in the project. Ben writes, directs, produces. Chris films, edits and directs.

The film was finally finished recently after all night edit sessions and years of work .
So, Ben and Chris sent it out to all manner of film festivals--Tribeca, Sundance--with no idea of the outcome.

And here's the thing: They did it. Mister Rogers and Me will premiere at the Nantucket Film Festival that runs from June 17-21, 2010. ( )

Who could know all of those years ago that my path would lead me to the house next to Fred's in Madaket? Would urge me to say hello to Fred that day on the bay? Who could know that Fred would accept my invitation to come to Ben's birthday? Who could have known that Ben would be so moved, so passionate to follow this uncertain path?

Usually, things don't turn out quite so neatly, so...well...whole.

And it all began with "hello".


Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

What a wonderful story of friendship and kindness. And youa re right - it all starts with hello.

Congrats to your sons on their film's debut.

Susan Weissman said...

MC - Wow. Meeting a childhood icon and learning that he truly deserved to be one! My heart hurt the day my older child was two, home sick and told me to "Please change the channel. He talks too slow." A generational taste maybe or just hers. Either way, my memories of watching him are so peaceful.

Linda said...

Such a lovely story. I am looking forward to seeing Mr. Rogers & Me. Nantucket Film Festival is the perfect place for its premiere.

Erin said...

What a beautiful post. I remember well the day that Mr. Rogers died; it was my last semester of college, and all around me, my fellow students' mouths opened in shock and dismay when they heard the news. A hole was in our hearts too; how much more profound for someone who actually had the chance to know him well.

Have you ever heard of the book I'm Proud of You? My friend bought it for me a couple of years, and it is one man's story of his friendship with Mr. Rogers that began when he was assigned to write an article about him. Really gave me a great peek into his life and seemed to confirm for me that he really was a warm and wonderful person, on screen and off.

I will definitely be checking out Mr. Rogers and Me. Wishing Ben great success!