Saturday, February 19, 2011

A House Divided

Some of my fondest memories from my youth involve The Waltons, a series that was enjoyed by both my mother and my grandmother.

I guess it had something for all of us.

For my grandmother, there was Grandma Walton, played by Ellen Corby. I don't remember talking about her with my own grandmother, but I suspect she identified with the character.

For my mother, there was Olivia Walton, played by Michael Learned. Many of the stories involved lessons about parenting, and I often felt that I saw those lessons embodied in the disciplinary decisions she made.

(My family was a lot like most in those days, I guess. It often fell to my mother to make those decisions because she was the only parent in the house when the issues came up.)

And I, well, I was the writer in the family. It wasn't hard for me to see myself as John–Boy, played by Richard Thomas — although I never thought I would ever match him when it came to writing.

I'll admit, there are times now when I watch a rerun from that series, and I have the same reaction I have when I see pictures of the clothes people wore in those days or I hear some of the songs that were popular at that time.

I want to ask ... "What were we thinking?"

Today, whenever I hear John–Boy reading something he has written in his newspaper, it seems that, almost without exception, John–Boy's listeners are enthralled, even if, on closer examination, whatever he has written seems hopelessly sophomoric.

He could be reading the phone book or a recipe for shortbread, and still they would gush and fawn as if he had just shared a passage from one of the Gospels.

As someone who has spent many years working for newspapers and teaching journalism, I know that journalists seldom, if ever, get that kind of adulatory response.

At the time the show was on the air, I was a teenager, dreaming a naive dream of writing something that would be as widely accepted as John–Boy's writing and hailed as some kind of revealed truth.

Well, I did say it was naive, didn't I?

Still, I wanted to be like John–Boy — and, to a certain extent, I suppose I was. I was often told by the adults in my life that I had a knack for writing, and there were times when people would gush and fawn over things that I had written.

I didn't think at the time — and I don't think now — that they were merely being polite and encouraging. I never felt that they were insincere.

But, if I am to be honest, I look at many of the things I wrote then, and I want to ask myself the same question: "What was I thinking?"

In hindsight, I know that John–Boy's writings — well, many of them, anyway — were schmaltzy, cliched and hopelessly out of touch with reality. They weren't exactly what I would advise my students to emulate.

But there were exceptions — and one of them aired 35 years ago tonight, in an episode called "The House."

The story was about a controversy on Walton's Mountain concerning the fate of an old, abandoned building that once had been prominent in the community. Grandma, feeling sentimental about a house that played such a major role in her youth, wanted it preserved. That put her at odds with Grandpa (Will Geer), who sensed an opportunity to make some money from the valuable wood in the structure.

It was the classic tug–o–war between the past and the future, between sentiment and cash.

As an aspiring journalist, John–Boy accepted the challenge of writing an editorial on the growing drive to save the old building and found himself in a familiar predicament for journalists — he tried to please everyone and wound up pleasing no one.

His editorial was pretty well written, I thought at the time. And I still think it was pretty well written. It was logical. It was reasonable. But it was right smack dab in the middle of the road.

Perhaps it appealed to me then and still appeals to me now because I am a middle–of–the–road kind of person. Some people dismiss folks like me because, they say, we have no convictions, but I don't think that is true. I wouldn't be honest if I did not advocate the things in which I believe.

And it wouldn't have been honest for Grandma and Grandpa to react in any way other than the way they did. No matter how well written John–Boy's editorial may have been, it didn't go far enough to please either side.

Eventually, I suppose, Grandma and Grandpa reached the only compromise they could. Grandpa salvaged a stained glass window from the old house and put it in their bedroom, giving Grandma something she had longed for since she was a girl — the opportunity to look at Walton's Mountain through one of the stained glass windows she had long admired.

Perhaps some dreams can come true even if it takes awhile.