Mary will continue to turn my world on with her smile.
I suppose it began with “Sesame Street”. A crucial episode when M was the letter of the day. It helped me overcome a key sticking point in my learning. I could spout off the alphabet in a familiar singsong voice, but I’d thought the fast part in the middle, LMNOP, was the name of a single letter. Bert and Ernie et al. set me straight. That breakthrough proved huge. My phonetic awareness grew—m is for mom, m is for monkey.
What a cool letter!
And I became conscious of environmental print—my street name began with M and then there was the big yellow M for McDonald’s. But the fast food sign could not compete with the block, typeset capital M on the wall of a sitcom apartment set. M was for Mary. Was and is. Mary Richards, portrayed by MTM, Mary Tyler Moore.
There was always something about Mary. She visited my living room every Saturday night and, being as that was never a school night, I had the privilege of staying up “late” and seeing her navigate the newsroom and the homefront in a tiny apartment where everyone popped by. I got used to Mary’s place long before Jerry’s. Loopy people dropped in at will. She always had the time or was too polite to say otherwise. No wonder she remained single.
Even as an eight-year-old boy, I identified with Mary. She was my role model. Always gracious, always fighting to remain unflappable despite all that flapped around her. Mary taught me that the world was beyond my control. It was best to hold on to my convictions and greet the onslaught of oddities with a shrug and a smile.
Countless times growing up and throughout my adulthood, I’ve been deluged by other people’s problems. I am an established dumping ground. And as my own beloved Ted Baxters and Rhoda Morgenterns go on at length about a current conundrum, I find myself drifting off, if only for a moment, and saying, “Hello, Mary.”
And so it was only a matter of time before I set out to find Mary Richards. While my colleagues planned summer getaways in Italy and Nicaragua, I set my sights on Minneapolis.
I know I am no better than my eleventh grade classmate who showed up at school on a random, i.e., non-Halloween, day dressed as Darth Vader. Perhaps I am no further evolved than the four-year-old boy I recently saw in full Spiderman costume—just because—or all the little girls at Disneyworld in princess regalia. I do know Mary Richards is not real and she is certainly neither princess nor superhero; still, there is reality in her character due to the fine writing of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” staff.
I also know that the show has, as one online source described it, only a “tenuous” connection with Minneapolis. The show was always shot in a studio in L.A. But the opening and closing credits of the show solidly placed it in Minnesota’s largest city. As Sonny Curtis sang “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” we saw Mary Richards driving to town, naïve yet filled with aw-shucks anticipation. We saw a balcony restaurant and the opening ended with that iconic scene surrounded by pedestrians as she tossed her hat in the air, a hurrah, a Let’s-make-a-go-of-this. Indeed the optimism evolved in the theme song, with a second season lyric change from “You might just make it” to “You’re gonna make it.” After all, this was Mary Richards. Human, not superhuman. Indefatigable despite mishaps, hard-knocks and humiliations. As far as I could see things, how could one not want to make a pilgrimage to a veritable City of Hope? Yes, Minneapolis.
I will admit to waffling. I’d planned on Minneapolis last summer after feasting on Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s delightful book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a behind-the-scenes confection about the show. Maybe “feasting” is the wrong word; I consumed the book in bite-size pieces, overjoyed with each passage, needing to set the reading aside to savor the anecdotes.
I doubted the trip. As I incurred too many expenses in the spring—a higher mortgage for a teensy Vancouver condo, car payments for a teensy new car (a Mini Cooper)—I knew the responsible thing to do would be to spend summer at home. What’s not to love about Vancouver in the summer?
But as soon as school let out, I felt restless. Minneapolis was personal business. It had been my destination since I was that eight-year-old, sitting on a sofa in the den of a brick house in Hamilton, Ontario.
I’d put off Mary long enough.