To My Earliest Mentor, Thank You

As I signed on to Facebook tonight, I saw posts regarding the death of Mary Grace Canfield.  For those who didn’t know her Mary Grace had a 4 decade career, nothing to sneeze about in Hollywood during any era.  She made the rounds from soaps to sitcoms and was most famous for playing… well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

I was born in the ’60’s, which was a very “interesting” time in our American history.  The Vietnam War, hippies & civil rights all colliding (and clashing) with the cookie cutter males and females of previous generations.  Some wanting fighting to maintain their roles and the security that came with it and others fighting to break out of the mold and throwing off the shackles of conformity knowing they were destined for other things.

The women’s movement was on every page and creating a virtual volcano in most households as the “lava” poured in.

The world I was born into had certain set rules.  And while there were people trying to change that out in the world, that was not necessarily “my world”.   Not yet.  As I described in my previous post (Gender Roles and Pigeon Holes) I was told early on what limited roles I could play in this world… nurse, not doctor, teacher, not principal, stewardess, not pilot.  You get the idea.

I was not comfortable in this world.  I absolutely hated dresses that I was forced to wear.  At that time, that’s all girls were allowed to wear in school.  I couldn’t wait to get home and get into my jeans (a.k.a. play clothes) and get outside.

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Then came  my first communion.  I got all the hype… how I was going to be able to dress up like a bride.  (Every little girls’ dream right?)  Big deal at the church, followed by the even bigger deal at my grandparents house.  Um, yeah, till I got grounded for going out back to play with the kids in the alley behind the house.  Okay, so it wasn’t the playing that got me in trouble…

One of the kids had gotten a new Pogo stick and we were all taking turns (and yes, I was still wearing that dress).  Unfortunately for me, the Pogo stick was not well put together and by the time it was my turn something zigged when it should have zagged and the next thing I knew was that I was on the ground and the Pogo stick was in pieces.

Worse yet was the owner of the formerly intact Pogo stick now standing over me threatening to beat me up because I broke his Pogo stick!  Now I will say that I wasn’t too worried, because I could have taken him in a fight (yes, still wearing that dress) and I knew that because I had already done it once before.

I did feel bad because I thought I broke it and it was new and I wanted to ride it again.  So of course I was happy to help fix it. Unfortunately, the main spring of the Pogo stick had rolled under an parked car and none of us had arms long enough to reach. No worries!  I’m skinny enough to scoot under the car and get it!  ADD is a wonderful thing.  (And yep, you guessed it – still wearing the dress.)

So finally someone realizes that I’m missing from my own party and the parental units give the quick once over of the house before rolling their eyes and realizing that I was outside and dreading what they’d find.  My mother was THRILLED beyond measure so find me sitting cross-legged in the alley covered in axle grease repairing a Pogo stick… still wearing the dress.

I think you get the picture.  I was a tomboy and I was stuck in the middle of a dress-wearing, ribbons-in-the-hair, can’t get dirty or chip a nail, frilly girl world and I just couldn’t take it.

I was the kid at my dad’s company picnic when they sent us out to find sticks to make a small fire, I brought back a downed tree.  It wasn’t too big around, but it was pretty long and I was so proud that none of the boys and brought back something that cool.

I was the kid at another company picnic when the regional V.P. decided to play touch football with the “little ones”, I tackled him because that’s how you play football.  (I should mention this was our welcome to the office party after moving to Chicago and the first time meeting everyone.  Mom thought she shouldn’t have unpacked and was sure that Pop was getting fired after that one.)

But on TV there was a ray of hope for me and her name was Ralph.

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From 1965 to 1971 (and many, many more years of syndication) ran a TV show called Green Acres.  If you’re unfamiliar, it was a farcical comedy starring Eddie Albert as a New York attorney wanting to ditch the rat race by leaving his farm and moving he and his wife from an upscale Manhattan penthouse to the fictitious backwater town known as Hooterville.

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The wife was played by Eva Gabor, who reminded me entirely too much of my Grandmother the Lithuanian beauty queen (literally – She was Miss Lithuania 1932) who was constantly talking about putting my hair in pin curls.  Eva Gabor was always dressed for a cocktail party, couldn’t cook, couldn’t clean,  and was always trying to darn her husband’s socks (back when people still did that) with a stapler because she couldn’t sew.

Hooterville was this beyond rural town with an eclectic cast of characters and farm life as it turned out wasn’t as pleasant as he’d dreamed… but he was an optimist so they didn’t run screaming with their hair on fire.  The house was a rundown shack that needed work from the time they moved in until about 30 years after the series ended.  So he hired none other than the Monroe Brothers to come to his aid and repair his home.

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Ralph and Alf Monroe – The Monroe Brothers

The Monroe brothers, Ralph and Alf were the carpenters/handymen contracted to work on the house.  Ralph was played by Mary Grace Canfield.  As the joke ran, their dad wanted boys.  She was head over heels infatuated over one of the local yokels who saw her as a guy named Ralph and in one episode they tried to make her more “lady-like” giving her the makeover with the big twirly dress, make up and heels.

Knowing the type of humor that was constant in that show (and because the world was a different place back then) the character was never seen as LGBT or as being in “drag”… either in her overalls or that pink dress they stuffed her in.  She was still Ralph.  To me, she was a mentor.  She was finally someone that I could identify with, no matter how corny the humor or how thick the “schtick”.

I know you weren’t meant to be a political statement or to push the proverbial envelope in gender identity, but to me you were a constant for me letting me know that I wasn’t alone.   No one laughed at her, they laughed with her and accepted her as just Ralph.  And I might add she was always the better carpenter.  She’s who I thought of when I helped out with my Uncle’s construction.

So rest in peace Mary Grace Canfield.  May your family accept my deepest sympathies and sincerest thanks.  You succeeded in a great career, brought a smile to millions and helped this little girl know that it was okay to just be me.

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