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A thank-you to Valerie Harper, and an ode to Rhoda

Posted 7:17pm on Tuesday, Mar. 12, 2013

It'll get better. It has to. You're not the crummy-life type, Mary. I am the crummy-life type. You just happen to be on a lousy streak. But soon, things will be back to normal again. Tomorrow you'll meet a crown head of Europe and marry. I will have a fat attack and eat 300 peanut butter cups and die.

-- Rhoda Morgenstern

Valerie Harper, I need to thank you. At the risk of "going to the funeral the day before the funeral" (as you put it in an episode of The Doctors that aired this week), I feel compelled to get it out while you're still with us.

When you announced last week that you have terminal brain cancer, I was a bit wrecked. It felt a little strange, how sad your news made me. Though I met you once (when you fixed my necklace at the Kentucky Derby in 2001, and hence made my week), I don't know you.

But you have touched my life. You, Rhoda.

So thank you, Valerie. For giving us Rhoda Morgenstern, the messy, funny, beautiful, Jewish, scarf-wearing, "crummy-life type" foil to the ever put-together Mary Richards.

Sure, James Brooks and Allan Burns deserve credit for creating and writing for Rhoda, but you brought her to life like nobody else could have.

So many girls and women who embraced The Mary Tyler Moore Show aspired to Mary's slightly lopsided perfection -- her smarts, her pluck, her ability to have men fall at her feet and to always look super-stylish. (Though we did always hope to throw better dinner parties than her legendary disasters. Veal Prince Orloff, anyone?)

But most of us could never be Mary. We saw more of ourselves in Rhoda: imperfect, self-deprecating, unlucky in life and love, and, God, what a messy apartment. Most of us had that one friend -- the charmed Mary Richards -- who always made us feel a little like a loser when we stood next to her.

That dynamic is crystallized in an episode titled Room 223, in which Mary decides to take a class in news writing. When Rhoda says she wants to sign up for the class too, Mary asks her why.

" Because, Mary. You are a golden person. Next time when your fairy godmother comes to visit, when she swoops down on ya, I wanna be sure I'm right there at your side. That way, when she waves her magic wand, some of the old gold dust'll sprinkle down on me."

At the end of class, Rhoda and the other students start filing out of the room, but the instructor asks Mary to stay after class, and, inevitably, asks her on a date.

Rhoda's response: "I KNEW it! The fairy godmother zooms in, sprinkles you all over. Where am I? Out in the hall."

A funny thing happened on my way to Mary worship. I found myself wanting to be more like Rhoda. The funniest girl in the room with the snappiest comebacks. The one who lived a bit more on the edge. The assertive one who said what she felt and could wrap her head in a funky scarf and look like that beautiful, bohemian glamour queen.

I recently talked about you, Valerie, and Rhoda, with my friend Alyson, who was too young to watch the original MTM episodes, but caught up with the show in her teens on Nick at Nite.

"When I was 15, 16, 17, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Mary and Rhoda's friendship, really did make a huge impact on me," Alyson said. "It played a big role in helping me imagine an adult life on my own, and I am grateful to her for that."

Me too.

And while my heart will hurt when you're gone, I take comfort that your good-humored, indomitable spirit, and the legacy of Rhoda, will live on, sprinkling gold dust on us all.

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