By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D, Commentary | Published December 22, 2016
I confess that I am not always a patient man.
At this time of year, in particular, I am often a nervous wreck.
A man can bear only so many trips up to the attic or down to the crawl space in search of Christmas decorations before he snaps.
So the other day, as I emerged like a rat from beneath our house with the last of the outdoor lights, I pitched a fit worthy of Scrooge.
I was suitably reprimanded by my wife and children—all of whom love Christmas lights and who would happily illuminate our entire home with enough bulbs to power a small rocket—and reminded that, indeed, life is not like a television show.
So how could I not think, once again since her recent death, of the actress Florence Henderson, who will forever be remembered as television’s Mrs. Carol Brady?
Mrs. Brady, she who reminded us that we should “never play ball in the house” and that “no problem was ever solved by crawling into a hole,” would not have approved of my outburst. But the woman who played her on television would have advised me to look for the grace inherent in the moment, or more to the point, “offer it up.”
Most of you are aware that “America’s Mom,” Florence Henderson, died suddenly of heart failure about a month ago, on Thanksgiving Day. You probably don’t know that Henderson was a devout Catholic, and that her faith was a source of pride and comfort to her throughout her successful and often difficult life.
Henderson was born on Valentine’s Day 1934 in Indiana and grew up in rural Kentucky. The youngest of 10 children, she was educated in Catholic schools by Benedictine nuns, who taught her how to sing, both in musical settings for the Tridentine Mass as well as Gregorian chant. Late in her life, Henderson remained deeply involved in publicity and fundraising for the Benedictines.
Henderson was a gifted singer, and as a young woman she found quick success on Broadway, performing in notable musicals such as “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music.” Her work on the stage quickly led to television opportunities, and she frequently appeared in variety programs and commercials—work that she always insisted represented legitimate and difficult acting. Her talent, her genuine charm and her good looks (it was once said she seemed to have emerged from a butter churn) meant that she was always working. She even became one of the first women to guest host “The Tonight Show.”
Henderson’s life changed forever, however, when she was offered the role that would make her a national icon. In 1968, Hollywood producer Sherwood Schwartz created a television show based on the blending of two families, one with a single mother with three daughters and the other with a widower and his three sons. The mere opening of the famous theme song, “Here’s the story, of a lovely lady …,” probably best reminds you of the rest.
“The Brady Bunch” premiered on ABC in 1969 and had a run of five seasons until going off the air in 1974. The show was not as successful as you might think. In fact, throughout its five years, it never once entered the top 25 Nielsen ratings. The show aired on Friday nights at 8 p.m., traditionally a weak time slot, and its audience was primarily families with young children. Growing up as a child in the 1970s I vividly recall being allowed only one night a week to stay up past 8 and allowed only one evening television show. That meant that on Fridays at 8, I sat on the gold shag carpet of our ranch house, eyes glued to the cabinet style television, transfixed not so much by the stories as I was by the beautiful Brady girls.
When the show entered syndication following its cancellation, it became a cultural phenomenon. It has never been off the air and has been syndicated around the world. It has spawned television movie sequels, spin-off series, and affectionate parodies. And the character most associated with the show is without a doubt Mrs. Carol Brady.
In the last interview she gave before her death, Henderson talked with reporter Rita E. Piro of St. Anthony Messenger (the full story is scheduled for publication in the magazine’s January 2017 issue). She said, “I frequently am contacted by people who want to thank me for ‘The Brady Bunch.’ Whether they grew up during the show’s original television run or are brand-new fans of the present generation, they tell me how important ‘The Brady Bunch’ has been in their lives. I wanted to portray Carol as a loving, fun, affectionate mother, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people who maybe had the same situation I had growing up. To think that something I was involved in had such a positive effect on the lives of so many people is satisfying beyond words.”
Henderson’s “situation growing up” was a difficult one, indeed, but even as a child she demonstrated remarkable faith. As she suffered under the abuse of an alcoholic father, Henderson prayed simply “Dear God, give me the gift of understanding.” Until her father’s death, Henderson was often his primary caretaker, who nursed him through one binge after another.
Prayer helped Henderson endure both her father’s illness and the stress of her career, as well as personal crises including the temporary loss of her hearing. “I don’t ever remember not praying,” she said. “Bedtime prayers, the rosary, praying for friends, relatives, for the sick and for those who had died. It was a natural part of our lives.”
Through her habitual prayer, as well as a strong devotion to the Miraculous Infant Jesus of Prague, Henderson arrived at a strong sense of what she called “faith in action,” which means using one’s own individual talents to benefit the lives of others. Saying what we believe is easy; living our belief in such a way that others see our faith is much more difficult.
Henderson’s devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague is interesting. St. Therese of Lisieux, renowned for her “Little Way” of spirituality, was deeply devoted to the Infant. Though some may say that Henderson was merely a television star on a sentimental and unrealistic program, Henderson herself saw “The Brady Bunch” as a means of promoting “gentleness and innocence.” The show, she said, “had a little soft glow about it.” It was meant to reflect a child’s perspective of the world, and as such it sometimes contains profound truth beneath its simple exterior. It represented strongly Henderson’s own “little way.”
Throughout its five-year run, “The Brady Bunch” only featured one Christmas episode. It is a simple and sentimental story. Carol Brady has contracted laryngitis, which may prevent her from singing in a Christmas program. The youngest Brady, Cindy, asks a department store Santa Claus for a miracle, that her mother recover her voice. Of course, Carol’s voice returns, and she is able to sing—beautifully—“O Come All Ye Faithful” at church.
As Henderson herself said, “Unlike in real life, the Bradys’ problems were always solved in 30 minutes.”
Indeed. Nobody lives a life like that of the Bradys—not at Christmas time, not ever. But believing that such a life might be possible, if even for a moment, is a gift not to be taken for granted.
So bring on the Christmas lights; and who knows, if I’m good enough, maybe I can get an AstroTurf backyard, just like the Bradys.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.