What Mary meant to my generation

I was in my early teen years when Dick Van Dyke walked through the door of his New Rochelle home each week into the arms of the most beautiful woman I had seen on TV. Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie was not a background, stay-at-home mom.

She was a true partner in marriage, smart and optimistic. Every boy from 11 to 81 wanted to live up to her expectations, and when she said “Oh, Rob!” you felt a stab in your heart as if you were the one who had disappointed her.

I was in my 20’s when Mary Richards, the character Moore played in her new show, picked herself up from relationship disappointment, moved to Minneapolis and became the single-woman focus of the ups and downs of pursuing a successful career.

She had friends whose idiosyncrasies she understood but did not mock. Friends on whom she could count. Conversations with people that went beyond 140 characters, using words instead of letters and numbers, expressing feelings and emotions that happily predated small yellow circles with dots for eyes and half-curves for mouths.

Yes, Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards was the role model for then and future young female journalists and millions of other aspiring professional women. But what she represented went beyond gender. She became the sweetheart of an America that embraced her as a model of the optimism, independence, mutual acceptance, inclusion, determination and triumph over adversity that we baby boomers claimed as defining factors for our generation.

The recent passing of so many men and women who loomed large in America’s post–World War II cultural landscape has been sobering — but the passing of Mary Tyler Moore has been a jolt apart for me, and I would bet for many others of my generation.

As Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, she was us, as we evolved through increasingly changing times. Her smile didn’t just turn the world on — it reflected an inner sense of strength and well-being; a sense — a real sense, not a Hollywood sense — of how we all could feel and all could make it if we tried.

Her shows were gone too soon. At 80, she is gone too soon. We have trouble understanding each other’s idiosyncrasies. Our relationships and our marriages require so much work. TV reporter Mary Richards wouldn’t even imagine fake news or alternative facts.

Our new president outlines a path to the past that is dark and angry and loud and overbearing and exclusive and unrealistic.

Mary Tyler Moore represented a different past that was rooted in communicating, in treating each other with respect, in dealing with each other as humans with both flaws and saving graces rather than as caricatures. A past with key elements and values still relevant if we could find a path to retrieve them. Her passing strikes such a chord because it reminds us how in search we are of “our Mary”, of an America that can again toss its hat in the air.

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