The Brady Bunch ran from September 26, 1969, a year before I was born, to March 8, 1974, when I was three, almost four. It went into reruns after that, a constant in my childhood.
Living in a dark, illegal basement apartment, hearing my parents whisper about possible deportation in worried tones, the Brady Bunch became a kind of blueprint to America for me. Sure, I didn’t know anyone who had the big house or the wood-paneled station wagon, but here we were, in the land of them. No, my hair wasn’t a sheet of blond amazingness like the Brady girls’, but that was the norm, the thing to aspire to. I ached for their Hawaiian vacations, like when they found that creepy idol in the cave, and for their inconsequential problems. I yearned for parents who never screamed and never worried about money. One day, when I was American, my life would be like theirs.
It would be decades before I truly understood that they were just a fabrication, a fantasy, a nod to domesticity at a time when society was getting a lot more complicated. The actor who played the father was a closeted gay man. The cast had its issues as the years went on – eating disorders and drug problems and bad reality TV shows. But I didn’t know any of that when I sat, enthralled, and watched them on the little black and white TV my parents had found in someone’s garbage. I just knew they were hope, always united and polite, comfortable enough with money to never think or talk about it.
So it saddened me to hear of Florence Henderson’s passing right after Thanksgiving last week. She hadn’t been Carol Brady for decades, but, for many of my generation, that’s all she would ever be. Three days before she died, she’d gone to a taping of Dancing with the Stars to watch Maureen McCormick, her TV daughter Marcia, compete. She was still the perfect mom, supportive and sweet. She was 82 years old.
I heard, after she died, that she hadn’t had a great mom, and in Carol Brady had sought to portray the mother she’d wished she’d had. She was a fantasy that begat thousands of fantasies, those of us who first longed for her, then longed to be her. There are those who say that the impossible ideals of media – the sheets of blond hair not everyone can have, the wealth not everyone grows up with – do more harm than good. But I am not sad she was a fantasy. Ideals are important, a beacon during difficult times, and in coming into my dank, underground living room with the cracked floor, she took me by the hand and told me there was something better, somewhere, if I could just hold on. I can’t say I found my something just because of Carol Brady, but she definitely helped. I am not in her America, the one she helped me dream of, but I am in a pretty good one. And she was one of the first people to help me think it was possible, even when all odds seemed stacked against it.
For that gift, Florence Henderson, I thank you deeply.