Gardening At Night

I’m out to dinner with my mom. She’s been a Istanbul for the last three weeks, so there’s a fair amount of catching up to do.

A lot has happened, but mostly, I wanted to tell her about progress on my Mr. Rogers documentary.

Mrs. Rogers gave me her blessing for the project two years ago, but said I had to get approval from Family Communications first. So I’ve been tentatively reaching out to FCI, the company that produced “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and now manages his intellectual property, ever since. But only since March, when Chris and I finished the teaser trailer, drafted a synopsis, and began reaching out to potential interview subjects, have I been assertively calling the Pittsburgh-based company.

At first, I left messages for Bill Isler. Mr. Isler is the president of FCI, as well as president of the Pittsburgh Public School board, and Executive Director of the Fred M. Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania (the town in which Mr. Rogers was born). He’s a busy man. And then it dawned on me. How do you get through to any important, busy, in-demand person? Through their assistant.

His assistant, Elaine, has been delightful. I’ve spoken with her once or twice a week for the last six weeks. I know the weather in Pittsburgh. I know when she’s not feeling well. When I called for what must have been the twenty-fifth time on Monday, she laughed and said, “One minute. He’s in, but he’s on the phone. I’ll put you through next.”

I sat there at my desk nervously reviewing my notes… the film will be a combination between documentary and memoir, it’s a road trip, book ended by Nantucket —

“Benjamin Wagner, Bill Isler.”

“Mr. Isler, thanks so much for taking my call.”

“Call me Bill.”

“Well, Bill, thanks so much for taking my call. I know you’re a busy man.”

“Well, so are you.”

We’re meeting on Monday at four o’clock.

Which doesn’t mean anything. He could still say no, and all of the doors to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” would close: Mrs. Rogers’, FCI’s, WQED’s, David Newell’s — closed. But I don’t think he will.

My mother met Mr. and Mrs. Rogers the summer before I did. They lived in a cottage next door to the one she rents in Nantucket. She gathered the courage to say to hello to him as he passed by for his daily swim in Madaket Bay. He saw that she was writing in her journal.

“Mary Catherine, are you a writer?”

The truth is, my mom knew The Rogers far better than I did. I only saw him person three times, and exchanged a few letters. Which may have a lot to do with why I’m working so hard to know him better. Because I think he’s about the best role model a man could have.

“I’ve always been myself,” he once said. “I never took a course in acting. I just figured the best gift you could offer anyone is your honest self, and that’s what I’ve done for lots of years.”

Your honest self: no more, no less.

My new friend, author Amy Hollingsworth (a guardian angel on this project, to be sure), writes in her book, “The Simple Faith Of Mr. Rogers”

Acclaimed writer and thinker Madeline L’Engle once noted, in her treatise on the spiritual rhythms of life, “The Irrational Season,” [that] “Righteousness begins to reveal itself as that strength which is so secure that it can show itself as gentleness, and the only people who have this kind of righteousness are those who are integrated and do not suppress the dark side of themselves.”

The day after I met Mr. Rogers, he took me on a tour of his Crooked House. And, as I’ve written before, asked me questions about my parents’ divorce that no other adult dare ask.

“With children,” he told Amy, “You don’t have to talk about the weather. If the child trusts you, very often, what happens to be on his or her mind will just spill out.”

It all spilled out that September afternoon way back in 2001. I felt like crying.

I told my mother of my incremental progress. Bill and I are meeting on Monday. Two weeks later, Chris and I are flying to North Carolina to interview Amy and Human Kindness Foundation founder Bo Lozoff, who is also a friend of The Rogers. Later this summer we’ll do shoots in Washington, DC, New York City, Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles, and back in Nantucket.

My brother asked me a few weeks ago, “What’s our conflict? Every story has a conflict.”

At first,” I told my mom, “I didn’t know. But now I do. Mr. Rogers asked me about working for MTV. Then he said to me, ‘There is no shortage of things that are shallow and complex. We need more television, more movies, more art that is deep and simple.'”

I felt the tears again, rising up through my solar plexus and into the pit of my throat.

“He was planting a seed in me, mom. It’s my job now to make it grow.”

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