Part 4 In our Golden Girls Series: It’s Not Normal, But It’s Ours.
Just tuning in? Here’s a look back at where this journey started with the girls: A Tribute for Betty White
“You’re a furry little gnome and we feed you too much.” – Dorothy Zbornak to her mother.
Family is one of the most complicated subjects that we are confronted with in life and one that has puzzled people, authors, philosophers throughout the ages. Shakespeare demonstrated the heavy struggles of family loyalty and duty in Romeo and Juliet. Leave It To Beaver demonstrated the squeaky-clean, “American” ideal image of family, one that has been stuck to our conscious as though applied with glue.
We’ve been conditioned to think of the ideal family as a mom, dad, a couple of tots and perhaps a dog. I often think of the show Growing Pains where there was the working dad, the stay at home mom (for many years and yes, eventually she returned to work), two brothers and two sisters. Yes, the family was not without our typical every day issues, but there was a level of societal perfection to it that so many of us do not boast. And guess what: it’s ok.
So what if your family does not have the a-typical 4 Bedroom, 2.5 bath house with (Mom + Dad = pre-determined amount of babies)…that feels way too much like an algebra problem and not real life. Real life is better shown in shows like today’s Modern Family, but of course, we’re here to talk about the Golden Girls.
Each one of the girls have their own demonstrations that family is not always the ideal Leave It To Beaver structure we’ve been taught to believe in; Blanche is nearly disowned from her family because of her pride when she refuses to go to her father’s funeral. Rose has a sister who is wickedly manipulative to the point where she attempts to ostracize her from her friends. Sophia was not married to the most handsome, clever, or smart man in the village, but her late-husband Sal loved her with all of his heart and that was all she needed. Then there’s Dorothy’s brother Phil. Oh, Phil. Where to begin?
Let’s start with Dorothy, or more formally, Dorothea Petrillo, daughter of immigrants Salvatore and Sophia Petrillo, mother of Michael and Kate, sister of Phil, and former wife of Stanley Zbornak, “first class yutz.” Her family demonstrates the a-typical American family, and no, not the televised American family, the REAL American family. Maybe not your own, but I can almost guarantee that among your friends, your relatives, neighbors or colleagues, there’s more than a few like this one. Each member of Dorothy’s family could compose an entire chapter on the ins-and-outs representing American life, Stan could be a book to himself, but we’re going to focus on her little brother Phil and we’ll start with his death.
At the beginning of the episode, we learn that the girls are preparing for Phil’s funeral. The girls are obviously in mourning, but we are almost instantly reminded of a lifestyle preference of Phil’s that had been mentioned on numerous occasions about the character throughout the show, though we never actually get to meet Phil: he passed away from a heart attack while trying on evening gowns.
Sophia comes out into the living room and in her mourning clothes, asks of the girls:
“Dorothy, I never understood why your brother liked to wear women’s clothes, unless he was queer.”
Blanche respectfully replies, “Sophia, people don’t say queer any more, they say gay.”
To which Sophia corrects, “They say gay if a guy can sing the entire score of GiGi. But a six-foot-three, two hundred pound married man with kids who likes to dress up like Dorothy Lamore, I think you have to go with queer.”
Phil is an extraordinarily unique character within the show. It’s easy to assume that a man who wears women’s clothes and watches Gladiator movies has a penchant to be gay, BUT, we are lead to believe that he wasn’t. Blanche ends up having a gay brother, but Dorothy’s brother is simply different from what society expects and the whole conversation of Phil throughout the series sheds light on the fact that it’s ok to be different and to have a family member who is different. Regardless if the members of our family are different or the perceived “normal,” we love them anyway because they’re family and that’s what you do.
This question though of why someone is different and how they came to their choices is difficult for some to accept. Sophia demonstrates the questioning of “what did I do wrong” a parent may feel if their child doesn’t meet that ideal image that they create for their babe. Parents imagine this ideal image of what their baby’s life should be and when their child’s reality is different from their parents’ dreams, that can be a difficult concept to accept. Most parents do and that is wonderful, but some resent the fact that their child’s dreams are different from their own. We see this later point with Sophia. She goes DECADES without stepping foot in her son’s home because she alleges to resent Phil’s wife, Sally, when in reality she is resentful to the fact that her baby boy’s lifestyle was drastically different from her ideal image and she fears that people blame her his choices. Dorothy goes to wit’s end trying to play peace-builder to her mother and sister-in-law and in the process she realizes that she loved her brother unconditionally regardless of his life choices. He was her brother and that was all that mattered. Eventually, Rose becomes moderator between the clashing Titans, Phil’s surviving wife and Sophia.
Rose asks Sophia why she is so upset at Sally. Sophia replies, “The dress thing, why didn’t she stop the dress thing?”
Sally defends herself that Phil’s cross dressing didn’t start with her and Sophia immediately responds, “Oh, so it was my fault?”
Rose asks, “Are you worried that people will think it’s your fault, Sophia?” In a backwards way, Sophia admits that yes, she was concerned by this. Rose establishes that Phil was a good provider, a good human being. Rose then proceeds to go into a St. Olaf story, most of which I’ll spare you from, but she ends with, “It was shame that kept Aunt Katrina from loving slow Ingmar and it ruined her life. So what if he was different? It’s ok that you loved him.”
Realizing her folly, Sophia says, “I did love him. He was my son. My little boy. But every time I saw him I always wondered what I did, what I said, when was the day that I did whatever I did to make him the way he was.”
Sally stands and says, “What he was, Sophia, was a good man.”
Falling apart, strong Sophia cries, “My baby is gone.”
It’s an intense scene; a mother realizing that she didn’t show her boy all of her love because she was ashamed and scared that she would be judged for his decisions. In an earlier scene, Dorothy gives the eulogy at her brother’s funeral and the dialogue is worth reading because it demonstrates the importance the absolute importance of loving and appreciating every moment we have with our loved ones because we don’t know when they will be taken away:
“Seems like I’m always mad at my brother Phil. I was mad the day my parents brought him back from the hospital; I thought he’d take their love away from me, and instead their love expanded and we felt ore like a family. I was mad at him when I was ten and he was four and we moved to a new neighborhood; I was mad because he always made new friends more easily than I did. And I’m mad today because I never wanted to give the eulogy at my kid brother’s funeral. I’m mad because he died he didn’t have the wisdom to know that family members shouldn’t allow themselves to grow apart because when this day comes they can no longer tell each other how they care. If he had that wisdom he could have shared that with me and I would have of just the two of us eating ice cream on the stoop of our building, going through the drawers of grandma’s house, or dressing up like the Bronte sisters. How those memories fill me with joy. Why didn’t you have that wisdom Phil? Why didn’t you give us a chance to tell you how much we loved you?”
Love takes so little effort and yet it seems that we are so much quicker to hate. It doesn’t make sense. Don’t let society, stereotypes, misguided ignorance or assumptions determine the love that you share. If your child is happy, loving, gracious, humble and successful, is that not something to be proud of? If their dreams are different than yours, have you not created a strong, independent individual? If your sibling’s life is different from your own, hey, at least you won’t have to compete over the same victories, however large or small.
Family is crazy, family can be a mess. It can be stability. It can be our biggest frustration. It can be our peace. Regardless of what you find it to be, it’s likely not “normal,” it’s not what we grew up believing in it to be, but it’s ours and it’s something to hold and to treasure, especially if it’s not perfect. It’s helped to influence who you are today.
My workplace has this odd family connection, where we are dysfunctional, mostly crazy, and we are certainly not without our inner conflict, but at the end of the day, we are all under the same colors and we do for each other, as we do for our own blood. The Golden Girls show us that blood is not the only thing that makes “family.” Love, friendship, loyalty, pride, and faith are what binds us as family. And I’m extraordinarily grateful for all of mine.
We’ll see you next week for the conclusion of our Golden Girls series!
Your humble author,
PS – I did not make it to my storage last week to collect my DVD player, nor have I subscribed to Hulu to watch Golden Girls while I work on these. I did see a new magazine though regarding the Girls at my local grocery store. Somehow I missed picking it up, but have any of you seen it?
Post Post Script – this chapter is dedicated in honor of my friends, one who recently lost his father, and my other friends who recently lost their mother. Their love will never leave you and they will live on forever in your hearts.
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