Monday, June 10, 2013

Edith Bunker: The Queen of Stifle Who Out-Dumbed Us All

The death of deeply talented Jean Stapleton, Hall of Famer, Stifled Division, reminded me of Archie Bunker, her TV sitcom husband in “All In The Family.”

For an odd reason, her passing reminded me of the bedroom I grew up in. It did not have a television in it, of course. That was downstairs, right under the shadow box art of a full-rigged ship nailed into the real varnished pine wall.

Then between that and the 19-inch black-and-white was the most crucial and advanced mechanism in our home, the rabbit ears with tin foil tips. Oh, baby.

I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on that television. I watched Roger Staubach throw touchdown passes on it and Pete Maravich make behind-the-back ones.

Saw some “All in the Family” on it, too.

Stapleton, who played Edith, would be the first to tell you that awesome ain’t easy. She loved Archie in spite of his faults and tried, in her own way, to help him dig out from under a few of those. I don’t know if he got better, but she kept him from getting worse. There was no other character like hers on television, but there were a few in our hometowns, much more real than Beaver’s mom or Mrs. Brady. Edith was more covert than other TV moms in both her devotion and instruction, except maybe that one time she yelled at Archie, “Stifle!” Hung him up. Touchdown, Edith.

But what I wanted to tell you was that I was one of the few kids in America, I would think, that owned an Archie Bunker poster, hung with thumbtacks just to the right of my little twin bed. It was a close-up of Archie, played perfectly by Carroll O’Connor, with the grin, sitting in “his chair.” The words on the poster read, “In your heart, you know he’s right.”

I had no idea what that meant. It sounded like some deep, grown-up truth. As if me and Archie, a kid from Dillon County and a dock foreman from Queens, had a bunch in common, a read on the world others had missed.

Or maybe it meant, “Hey, kid, bumpkin, you’re a bigot, too! Stifle yourself!”

The truth is, I just thought he was funny. His face. His self-importance. His realization, never admitted, that the world was going to change and he was going to be able to do very little about it. His good-looking daughter was going to wear mid-drifts. She was going to fall in love with a meathead.

But again, I loved Archie because he was funny. The secret was that Edith made him funnier.

Most wives I know make their husbands funnier, certainly better all-around than they would be otherwise. Like the big-hearted, hard-working Edith Bunker, the women I grew up around and others we know today aren’t so much drill sergeants as they are mirrors held up to dents in the male armor and to potholes in the male vocabulary. They compassionately but purposefully smooth things.

In your heart, you know they’re right.

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