Mister Rogers and Mariclare Barrett, a friendship: corresponding with Fred

Fred, Mariclare Barrett, photographer.
Today is Fred Rogers birthday. He would have been 87 years old.

This is the third in a series of stories about Mariclare Barrett's special friendship with Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers). The first story is herethe second here. Mariclare (Clare) is my husband Terry’s sister. (Clare has metastatic breast cancer, so when she visited recently, we made audio memos as a way to begin documenting memories.) Clare and her former husband had a close friendship with Fred, a friendship that began in 1982 when they interviewed him for an article in their magazine, Vegetarian Times. Their friendship continued until Fred's passing in 2003. The unedited audio is about seven minutes. It's titled, Corresponding with Fred. The text of the audio follows.

Because Fred Rogers lived in Pittsburgh and we lived in Chicago, my relationship with him was mostly developed through correspondence. He really liked to hear about the small things about life in our family so I frequently sat down and wrote about the day’s activities and funny things the kids would say. 

For instance, my five-year old son Paulie had a little trouble with words but tried to expand his vocabulary to keep up with his brothers and I remember we were out on the swing set. I was pushing him on the swing. He noticed that my hat was the same color as my dress and said, “Mommy, your hat detaches your dress.” He meant matches. 

So that was the kind of detail I would include in a letter just to make Fred laugh and to let him know what life was like in our family. He read those letters with great interest and his usual loving affection and concern, and would always write back. 

It's amazing that he answered letters from everyone. He personally answered letters from children and was deeply committed to doing that. You would know a letter was from him because he had an inimitable handwriting. He was left-handed and the shapes of his letters were square. He wrote in fountain pen.

As life went on I wrote him more letters and took photos and drew illustrations to share things that happened with my kids. There were three when we met, and ultimately six brothers. The fourth, Kevin, is his Godson.

Within a month or so after Fred's death, I received a large package in the mail and much to my surprise it was all the letters I had sent Fred over the years. All my correspondence: Little books I had made for his birthday and photos and all.

I was amazed to see that everything I had ever sent Fred was carefully kept aside and now returned to me. This was a great treasure because it was a chronicle of the everyday things in my life over the years. What a wonderful gift to have all those memories returned! It's just an example of the many ways Fred was so considerate.  

When gifts came from him we were always amazed with the time and care he took with selecting things. The boys loved getting toys and t-shirts and music from the Neighborhood. We would have such fun opening the packages, it was as if he were present with us. Then we would call him on the telephone with thanks and joy.

The best gift I ever got from him was so special. Fred had a house on the tip of Nantucket Island, which we visited some summers. His place was called The Crooked House because it settled kind of crooked. He had it for many years. His parents bought it for him as a wedding gift. 

Nantucket has a special culture being a whaling island and all the sea activity that took place around there. The fisherman’s wives would often become widows because it was very dangerous to be whaling. While they were waiting for their husbands to return, they would weave baskets. These light ship baskets are really special. They’re very strong, with a wooden bottom and really strong reeds. I'm not sure of the vocabulary for basket-making but I know it would take a lot time to make one. And then it would be finished with a wooden top and a piece of ivory carved into something like an anchor or whale, something of a fisherman motif. 

As a gift for me, Fred commissioned a lightship basket. 

I’m sure it was a costly gift and he announced it as an everything-for-the-rest-of-your-life present.  He went to an old man who made many lightship baskets and asked him to carve a heart for the top because he knew I liked hearts as motifs. He told me his heart was represented by that heart. 

That gift arrived, that everything-for-the-rest-of-your-life gift. It was right in the middle of the year. Not for Christmas, not for my birthday. Just when it was done. It was quite a beautiful and thrilling gift. 

            Nantucket Lightship Basket, Mariclare Barrett, photographer. 

The next time I came to Nantucket I could carry it with me. I was quite proud to have a lightship basket because mostly only real Nantucketers had one. 

So that’s something about Fred and the gift of his correspondence and his loveliness in giving presents to us.