I just found out that Valerie Harper has terminal brain cancer. Awful news. Awful news about anyone, at any time. I often have shifting thoughts and feelings about mortality – is it better to know that your time is close at hand so that you can prepare for it? Or is it better to have a quick departure? For the most part, we have little control of these issues. Instead of going down that path when I heard this news about Valerie Harper, I took a quick detour back to my childhood.
In the guise of her beloved character Rhoda Morgenstern, Valerie Harper had a huge impact on my young life. Huge. I adored her. Sure, I liked Mary Tyler Moore well enough, but even as a child I knew I was never going to be a Mary. Mary was the one people held doors open for, Rhoda got soaked by passing taxis. Nevertheless, I thought Rhoda was the height of cool. She was very cool. Rhoda lived in New York City, was a wise-cracking single gal who dated lots of duds before she married the very handsome Joe. She was also Jewish, which seemed exciting to me as an Irish Catholic kid who knew mostly only other Irish or Italian Catholic kids. Rhoda was even more amazing to me when she divorced the handsome Joe, deciding to be a single woman. That was an option? You didn’t have to stay married? Who knew? Rhoda knew. So maybe she ended up in a tiny apartment working for a grumpy costume shop owner in order to gain that freedom. I knew she’d end up doing window displays eventually, because she never gave up on her dream or on herself.
I loved everything about the show, I loved imitating Carlton the doorman and Rhoda’s nasally sounding sister Brenda. I could recite the whole opening monologue to the show when Rhoda opined about trying out Minnesota where, “it’s cold and I figured I’d keep better,” before she came to her senses and moved back to NYC. Rhoda’s apartment decor was funky, her clothes were stylish, but the best thing about Rhoda was that she was smart, funny and strong. Strong. Fiercely strong. She knew exactly who she was and who she wasn’t. Rhoda wasn’t a hand-wringing pleaser like her friend Mary Richards. Something in that black-coffee strong personality of hers spoke to me on a visceral level when I was a kid. Even when I didn’t understand the nuances in the show’s adult dialogue or Rhoda’s choices seemed less than smart to me (divorcing handsome Joe? really?) she was exactly who she told us she’d be. Rhoda was the brave Jewish aunt I never had.
Thanks so much for taking on that iconic role Ms. Harper and for letting me know it was okay not to be a Mary. Even on the days when I feel like a Brenda, and they are many, I never take my eyes off the prize as I aspire to let my inner Rhoda shine.