The Muppets saved my life.
There. It’s out there. It’s true, as crazy as it sounds, and not just for myself. Just a short spin around the WWW and the evidence is everywhere. “Bert Is Evil” was a meme before memes were memes. Facebook friends have Statler or Waldorf as their profile pics. Twitter feeds lights up every 5 minutes with cries of betrayal when a friend or family member “has been watching #TheMuppets -without ME!” Such passion runs fast and deep. As deep as the passion of their Master Imaginator, Jim Henson.
Indeed, the work of Henson and his associates has the power to save lives. And I’m not just talking about individual, physical lives. I’m talking emotional lives: the backbone of our evolving culture. Every day, they are creating new mythologies to hold us together and guide us through a fearful, often lonely world.
In the audience of powerful, universal storytelling, our tough exteriors are softened, and we can absorb and reflect on the underlying duality of life- that we are all different, yet we are all the same. With this magical ability, Jim Henson encouraged us to be better people and jump-started the world into being a more accepting, compassionate place.
Every zealous Muppet fan knows what I’m talking about. There is a thread that connects us. It’s dipped in the ink of childhood innocence and has been woven into our lives, the handiwork of a man who showed us how to love- not only each other, but ourselves-just as we are.
This is how the Muppets saved my life.
Like a lot of kids these days, I had a teen mom. I was born in 1981, the year The Great Muppet Caper hit theaters, 11 years before Jim Henson died of bacterial pneumonia. Mom was 16, still a kid herself, and according to my grandparents, she was wild. We were a poor family from North Chicago, Il- a city that most white people had fled by the time I was going to high school. Sure, my mom did drugs. She had married and divorced once by the time I turned 7. And about 6 years into her eventual sobriety, she met a man who was also in recovery, and they got married and had a baby.
I hope I’m not being overly-obvious when I say that it was difficult being a young teenage girl in a house with two thirty year-olds whose emotional landscapes had been shaped by years of low self-esteem, depression, and alcohol and drug addiction. After my brother C was born, my mom became a distracted super-mom and my new step-dad became distracted by me.
I was a tomboy, wearing flannels, jeans and tee-shirts, stomping around in combat boots and raging to Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill… and like a lot of scared girls the world over, I had the harsh reality of abuse to swallow.
The bad energy was palpable. The signs began to stack up. But like a lot of women and mothers, my mom was scarred by past infidelity. I never felt safe enough to tell her what was happening. If she went out of control again, who knew what would have happened to her, or my brothers, or me. In response to the tension, her mind boiled over with un-nameable fear and jealousy, and it washed the relationship we had built away.
I felt confused and alone, but in my mind, keeping this awful secret meant that I was protecting my mom -and the family that I loved and that I desperately needed to love me- from what I thought would be complete annihilation.
You see, my real dad, a Chicago Itali/Puerto-Rican and 5 years my mother’s senior, was basically absent from my childhood. My earliest memory of him (I think I was 9 at the time) is when my mom and I were driving through town and she saw a familiar figure crossing a lawn out of the corner of her eye. The breaks barked, and that’s when I learned that the guy that some people called “David” was my “father.” Up until that point, it was a something that we simply never discussed.
Believe me, I have no idea how it didn’t come up. Even though my mom had been briefly married before, a father simply wasn’t something I’d ever had any experience with, or knew to miss. All families were beautiful and different, and I had my mind on other things.
For instance, when my mom was distracted and using, I was usually busy keeping my eye on things like an uneven kitchen counter-top that dropped her burning cigarettes to the floor. I saw myself as a dutiful fireman, picking them up and replacing them on the counter while she did the dishes. And my usefulness didn’t stop there. I was making my own macaroni and cheese when I was 7 and making sure I was in bed early enough to get the sleep I’d need for school the next day. I tested well, had good grades, and I was proud of these achievements, and more. Every kid wants to do their best for their mom, and my mom need the extra help.
But I just knew she was the best mom a kid could have. Nobody had ever felt better if they were standing next to my ma. I drew her roses, painted her pictures, I wrote her poems to brighten her day. And it was no wonder why- she was young and emotive, beautiful and hip. And she was my mom! She was the crazy-fun mom who got arrested for feeding beer to the monkeys at a Wisconsin zoo and would sometimes wake me up to go to ‘surprise breakfast’ at 1 in the morning.
Her first first marriage turned explosively violent, and mom’s drug use started effecting her job. She was eventually cornered by her boss about her drug use and given an ultimatum. And she did a strong and courageous thing: she filed for divorce and checked into a 9 week in-patient rehab program. I was sent up the street to live with my grandparents and saw my mom during weekly hospital visits.
I have to admit, although I was confused and scared, this rehab time was a high point in my childhood. Grandma’s house was kind of like having a mom and dad, but they were way more relaxed and fun. I was in the perfect position to be able to witness an innovative and exciting time in kid’s television. Public television had always been my babysitter, but “the gp’s” had this wonderful thing called cable there, too. It wasn’t long before it consumed all of my attention.
It’s quite natural to say, therefore, that I am an original Muppet baby. I grew up with the folks on Sesame Street and the cast of The Muppet Show. I learned my ABC’s from mom’s old ‘Sings the Alphabet’ record- the one with the chalkboard inside. I had no idea what Herbert Birdsfoot looked like and I was always delighted when, on another album Sesame Street record, an orange Oscar the Grouch barged in on the fun to squeal about trash.
And my grandparents’ cable box yielded even more tv treasures. Grandma used her VTR to record “Muppet Family Christmas,” “The Muppets Take Manhatten,” and “Emmit Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” when they aired. I watched Muppet Babies and Fraggle Rock religiously, and favored my Baby Kermit and Baby Piggy Christmas plushies from McDonald’s over my baseball outfitted Alf puppet from Burger King. The Muppets had saturated my market.
When mom came out of rehab, life was steady and stable. She was taking things one day at a time and going to AA and CA meetings twice a week to surround herself with sober people who understood her. I would go along to the hospital and attend meetings of my own: Al-anon for Kids. The group leader introduced me to terms like co-dependency and self-esteem, but I was many years away from being able to connect the dots between them. When the mandatory meetings were no longer required, I tagged along to smoke-filled dance halls and pig roasts at the local half-way house.
From this point on, Mom and I were always together. We grew very close, and it was the happiest I had ever been. We went on mother-daughter retreat to reconnect with one another. Instead of going on camping trips without me, she brought me along. Instead of finding little notes from me all the time, she was writing them to me- and sticking them in the brown bag lunches she started to make for me. We were best friends, a team, making the household work together.
But mom was still lonely, and I could tell it bothered her. She kept going to dances. When I was 12, she was introduced to a newly single friend-of-a-friend. Despite the fact that he was entangled in a confusing custody battle with the mother of his own young son, mom fell in love. And my life, which had never been very predictable, took a completely unexpected turn.
Virtually overnight, everything changed. Her new boyfriend moved in, and my play room became their bedroom. She stopped making my lunch and started making his. They soon discovered she was pregnant, and married within the year. Though I loved my new siblings dearly, by the time I entered high school, I was openly alarmed at the back seat I had taken to an almost complete stranger.
What’s more, they had always been inappropriate with their affections in front of me, and sexually suggestive in their behavior.
Up until this point, boys and sex were anomalies to me. I had always been a tomboy who was good at sports and awkward with other kids. It would surprise many to know that growing up in a family of Roman Catholics, I had at one point seriously considered becoming a nun. When my unwed mother first started sharing her bed with my future step-dad, I actually agonized over whether or not she was going to hell for it. They were so into each other however, that my worries were never considered by anyone by myself. I started high school out of state sad, scared, and alone.
Eventually, I made friends with a band of high school misfits, and I met my best friend Sarah. It was her cable we were watching the night we found “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” I will never forget that night, or any of the things I have learned since.