By Allen Callaci
If you were raised as a latchkey kid during the 1970s, it is almost a prerequisite that your favorite TV mom of all time be Carol Brady. What’s not to love about Carol Brady? She was warm, caring, nurturing, and self-sacrificing. She embraced her socially imposed gender-role mold with a warm, maternal smile. “I’m a mother,” she once opined “I don’t have to be logical.” I have nothing against Carol Brady but when I think of my favorite TV mom, it is not Carol Brady who comes to mind. My favorite TV mom was not even technically a mom. Her name was Mary Richards. She was single. She was childless. And she could turn the world on with just her smile.
Yes, I know my choice of Mary Tyler Moore as my favorite TV mom growing up raises some troubling questions: “How can your favorite TV mom as a child be someone who was not even a TV mom?” and “What in the world was a 12-year-old boy whose favorite shows consisted of classic Looney Tunes cartoons and The Incredible Hulk even doing watching a show centered on the trials and tribulations of a young woman’s struggles to earn her rightful place in a male dominated work force?
The simple and potentially unsatisfying answer: When I make a mental list of the pop culture figures who have most shaped my world view, that list is almost solely made up of writers and musicians—Bob Dylan, Joan Didion, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Maya Angelou etc. The only metric I apply in creating that personalized list is to measure the size and shape of the shadow that an artist has cast over my entire existence. There are not a lot of sit-com stars to be found on that list. Mary Tyler Moore is.
Her portrayal of Mary Richards in her iconic self-titled 1970s sitcom got her past the bouncers and onto the list. Mary Richards was not a well-lit hologram of the perfect mother that I longed for. She was a reflection of the flawed grace and hidden strength that I saw in my own mother, a woman whose weekly highlight, after another punishing week of working full-time and raising three kids, was to wrap herself in a hand-knitted afghan and tune into the only show that even bothered to acknowledge her daily realities: The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
For 30 precious moments a week the small shag carpeted den would be filled with a language that my mom never spoke out loud, but one that she understood all too well. “Well I just wanted to let you know that sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman,” Mary anguishes in one episode. “I get to thinking that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought what is family, anyway? It’s the people who make you feel less alone and really loved.”
Although I was too busy laughing at the buffoonery of Ted Knight’s pompous Ted Baxter to take it in at the time, in later years I would revisit the show and the similarities between Mary Richards and my mom would become as apparent to me as a long-stemmed rose atop a pile of ash. Both women shared the same first name. Both women were tied to Minnesota. And both women worked in fields monopolized by men in an era where a woman earned 60% of a man’s salary. Mary Richards worked, strived and suffered as an associate television news producer at WFM while my mom worked, strived, and suffered as a dispatcher at the local police department . . .two sides of the same devalued coin.
But ultimately the most profound thing they had in common was this: they were both fighters who didn’t always let you know how hard it was that they were truly fighting. They didn’t want you worrying. They were going to make it after all, and so were you.
Thank you, Mary, one last time, for giving me some understanding into the things I may have never fully understood without you.