A wonderful, mythical mom

October 24, 2006|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

For women my age, Jane Wyatt, the firm but loving Margaret Anderson of Father Knows Best, was the mother we never had and the mother we would never become.

The actress, who died Friday at 96, had a phenomenal career on stage and screen, but she will be remembered best for the idealized television family over which she and Robert Young presided: flighty and emotional Betty, spacy Bud and earnestly cheerful Kathy.

The show aired from 1954 to 1960 and stayed with us in regular reruns for years after, along with Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show.

With shows like these, television was giving us an almost daily dose of a kind of family life with which we were totally unfamiliar, but familiar nonetheless. An entire generation grew up thinking it actually grew up that way.

I thought my father came home and changed from his suit jacket to one with patches on its elbows, snapped open the evening paper and waited for dinner.

I still think my mother presided over a kitchen in dresses and heels and gently shielded us and our misadventures from our exasperated father.

I remember my parents giving me just enough rope to hang myself and then stepping in at the last minute to deliver the kind of tough love lessons that made me the responsible adult I am today.

None of that is true, of course. No one I knew lived in a household like the Andersons. No one had parents like Jim and Margaret.

We didn't have bad parents. But we were raised in an era of benign neglect that would have left scriptwriters with blank pages. The kind of thoughtful parenting practiced in those television households would have to wait until we grew up to be the kind of professional parents we are today.

Even so, our households never settled into the quiet charm of the Andersons. The family dinners and the homework evenings that were so often central to their episodic crises never happened for us.

Dad is either working late or coaching one of the kids' soccer teams. Mom is flying in the door from work with a rotisserie chicken or flying out the door on a carpool mission.

Nobody ever washes up before dinner. Nobody ever asks to be excused from the table.

But we all grew up believing there was a right way to do these things, and it was the way the Andersons or the Cleavers or the Nelsons or widower Andy and his Aunt Bee did them. Television was showing us a lifestyle that didn't exist to which we could all aspire.

That was true for the casts of these shows as well.

"We all thought it was life -- as we wanted it to be," said Wyatt in an interview with The New York Times in 1986.

Wyatt, who had two sons and a husband to whom she was married for 65 years, once recalled that she initially resisted playing the part of Young's television helpmate. She had a string of movie credits, and she had been the star in a number of live television dramas.

"I didn't want to be just a mother," she said in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star.

She didn't want to be "just a mother" in real life either.

"I never vacuumed at home wearing my pearls," she said in 1990. "In fact, I never vacuumed at all: I was always working at the studio. I would have gone crazy staying at home like Margaret Anderson, and my family knew that."

There is another lesson Jane Wyatt leaves for us. And it is full of amusing irony.

Of all the roles she played and of all the professional success she enjoyed, it is the role of mother for which she will be remembered.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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