This week I took the death of Carl Reiner hard. Of course, I never met him, but yet I felt I knew him. There was a universality about his persona that made him seem like an uncle I would have liked to have had. There are some celebrities who just need to live on. For me, he was one. If you think about it, he probably influenced all of our lives more than we realize.
Not too long ago I watched an interview by Dan Rather with Carl Reiner and his son, Rob, another favorite of mine. Carl talked of his wife, Estelle and their 65-year marriage. Can you imagine the Thanksgiving table at the Reiners’ house? The laughter, the stories?
Reiner’s The Dick Van Dyke Show remains one of my all-time favorite television shows and his son’s When Harry Met Sally one of my favorite movies. Neither of these would I have without Carl. I watched a couple of episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show last night—ones that Carl not only directed but had a leading role in. I find the set of the show instantly comforting: There’s something about that house in New Rochelle that feels like home to me. I only ever watched the show in reruns, but through it I feel as if I’m returning to my childhood. Laura Petry, the preeminent homemaker, reminds me of my young mother in pedal pushers. Yes, I know that women then had a much harder time in terms of equality, paychecks, representation, and their abilities to control their own reproductive lives. I should not long for the days of the late 50s and early 60s, but, watching the show, I can’t help but envy the simplicity of the era. I would gladly surrender the convenience of Siri for a bite of Laura’s pot roast.
As a young girl, I could never decide whether I wanted to be Laura, having a mid-morning coffee with wacky neighbor Millie, or Sally Rogers who in my child’s eye was a sophisticated single career woman living in New York City. But the point is that the show offered me options, and both were glamorized. As for the men on the show, I very early on fell in love with Dick Van Dyke, and that love endures, and as a young child Morey Amsterdam, “Buddy,” reminded me of my dad with his short stature and wisecracks.
Ironically, when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, she happened upon an episode of Dick Van Dyke. She was enthralled and so it became our nightly ritual to cuddle on my bed and watch an episode before she went to sleep. I again experienced the show through a child’s eyes. She wondered why their world was black and white and could only reconcile her confusion with the notion that color had not yet been invented. Like me as a child, she wanted to visit New Rochelle—to knock on that front door and meet the Petrys. She said the first thing she would do is move the ottoman out of the way.
Thanks, Carl, for giving me that time with my daughter. Perhaps when it comes to the show, it’s not the era of the early 1960s that entices me, but a longing for times gone by. I pine for the days when my mom cooked a full breakfast every morning and we all ate it together. The world was gentler then and as we slept behind unlocked doors, we had no idea what was coming our way in future decades. Laura, who seemed to be constantly asking her husband’s egg preference, could not predict the imminent assassinations. As she poured from her percolator, she surely had no idea that the new conflict in Vietnam would take so many lives or that Watergate was on the horizon. As she went into the city for a “bit of shopping,” stopping by Dick’s office to kiss him, she could not have fathomed the horrors of 9-11 or that she and Millie would have to “mask up” to play bridge. Life was just easier in that house on Bonnie Meadow Road, where crises were resolved—in a tidy 30 minute time span.
The universality of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the fact that it could resonate with a kindergartener over four decades years after it originally aired, is a nod to the genius of Carl Reiner, and he should have lived forever. HBO just aired a documentary Reiner wrote about aging: “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” I highly recommend this uplifting essay on aging and what facilitates productive life into the high 90s. It features such legends as Betty White, Norman Lear, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks and Dick Van Dyke himself. I was raised to appreciate the elderly; they have always made me laugh and brought me comfort, and this documentary was a calming dose of perspective.
At one point, Reiner talks about the weekend cottage that he and his buddies like Lear and Brooks and their spouses visited. They named that house a variation of Yenevelt, a Yiddish word for “other world.” According to Reiner, it was a term his mother used to describe her faith in an afterlife, a joy yet to come. Certainly, with Reiner among its cast, our yenevelt will be not only joyful but full of laughter. And, until it comes, the house on Bonnie Meadow Road lives in our hearts as a retreat for when we need one most.