Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rant #356: America's Mom Says Goodbye

Barbara Billingsley died over the weekend. She was in her 90s.

To the baby boomer generation, Billingsley was certainly America's mom. Her role of June Cleaver on "Leave It To Beaver" defined what the ideal mother was in the late 1950s: quiet, demure, understanding ... and doing it all wearing pearls.

She was the quintessential mom. Sure it was nothing more than a fantasy, but that role really defined 1950s motherhood, or perhaps defined how it should be in our fantasies.

Everyone who is a mother, or, for that matter, is a father, knows that the June Cleaver character was just that, a character.

No mother, and for that matter, no father, could be as perfect as June and Ward Cleaver.

It's funny, but what made that show as great as it was were the imperfections of its title character, Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver. Next to brother Wally (Tony Dow), Beaver (Jerry Mathers) was imperfect. Wally was the good-looking football hero type, Beaver was the wannabe.

In fact, the reason little Teddy was called Beaver was because Wally, as the story goes, couldn't pronounce Theodore as a young child, and it came out Beaver.

Only on TV, huh?

While Ward was the stern, but understanding, leader of the Cleaver clan, June was its rock-solid foundation. Sure, she rarely became that angry where she would yell, but even without yelling, when Wally and the Beav did things wrong, her glance was enough to make the boys reconsider what they did.

And she did it all wearing pearls.

Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont, was a minister in real life, a religious man who insisted that religious values be the focus of the show, but smartly, he didn't want these values to be smacked on the head of the viewer. He wanted those values to come out in the storylines, and even though they were subtle, the values of brotherhood, understanding, and forgiveness all were discussed in the show's episodes.

These aren't necessarily religious values, per se, but they are values that we all can live by. And the show dealt with those themes and many others during its run.

Looking back, June Cleaver was something of a minor, but highly necessary, character in the show. The kids needed a mom, Ward needed a wife (this was before "My Three Sons" changed the whole sitcom landscape), and the kids needed both of them to present a strong nuclear family.

But Billingsley made her June Cleaver character unforgettable. When people praise the 1950s--or deride it--the June Cleaver character invariably comes up, both positively and negatively.

And that was the strength of the character. Sure, everyone knew she wasn't real, but everyone saw their own mother in her portrayal, or at least what they perhaps wanted their mother to be.

And you can credit Billingsley with that. She knew what she wanted to do with the character, and did it.

R.I.P., Barbara, you enriched our lives forever.

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