This morning I was saddened to learn of the passing of Andy Griffith. I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, but he represented the Americana of my childhood. With him goes one of the last remnants of the first U.S. I can remember, a world in which my family watched Andy, and later Gomer, on the living room TV or spent summer nights at the drive-in, where we watched Andy in family fare like Angel in My Pocket. Like Andy, my dad sometimes sang gospel and was a member of the church choir. My little brother especially liked Barney, aka Don Knotts, in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. (One summer we went to a matinee of Knotts’ The Incredible Mr. Limpet while on vacation in Daytona Beach, where, years later, I live and recall that movie each time I pass the place on Beach Street where the theater once stood.)
No matter how hard I tried—or how many times I was ridiculed for making a weird nasal noise instead—I never got the hang of whistling The Andy Griffith Show theme song. I did get the hang of fishing, and, just like Opie, I learned to fish with a cane pole and lots of patience (but my dad baited the hook for me). Even though my brother and I grew up in a good-sized city, our mother was raised in a more rural environment, and stories of her childhood resonated with the stories we watched of Mayberry. Years later, when I drove my mom from Florida to Ohio and Indiana to visit relatives, we’d stop at Mount Airy. Andy was never far from our conversations. The Andy Griffith tribute at the North Carolina welcome center became a rest stop we looked forward to, no matter how many times we’d seen the little exhibit. As recent as Memorial Day, my brother and I looked forward to hearing Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the start of the Indy 500. Somehow The Andy Griffith Show has worked its way into many corners of our lives.
When I think of Andy Griffith—Andy of Mayberry, actually, not Andy-as-Matlock—I think of gentle humor that recognized the foibles of human nature without being mean, ice cream socials or picnics with family and friends, and evenings on front porches. In my case the “porch” was more often a green glider or a swing in a grandparent’s backyard, but the idea is the same: sitting in the evening with plenty of time to ponder the world and watch the fireflies come out.
But Andy was also the first to show me that not all families are made up of a mother, father, and two children. Andy was first a widower and single father; Aunt Bee, a spinster with really no place to go. They and Opie became a family that superficially might seem constrained by traditional gender roles, but I noticed primarily a blended family—one that grew over the years to include friends, spouses, and children or grandchildren. Andy was one of the first to show me that a nontraditional family was OK, as long as everyone loves each other. That, a reflection of my upbringing, was a good foundation when my worldview expanded in the turbulent ‘60s.
Of course, I romanticize my childhood, but it’s still good to fall in love again, now and again, with my past. And Andy Griffith is part of that. When I mourn his passing, I also mourn the loss of just that little bit more of my childhood. Maybe I can’t go home again, but I can remember what it was like when I lived there.