I was six years old when the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks was released. I don’t remember if I was ever taken to see it at the theater, but it loomed large in my imagination, in part, because we had the Golden Book based on it. I was generally fascinated by the notion of ordinary household items as enchanted transportation, see also: Aladdin’s magic carpet and Cinderella’s coach. But there was also Angela Lansbury’s no-nonsense-but-fun-loving, reassuring presence. She knew how to have a good time, but was unquestionably a grown up. She could be counted on to comfort and take charge when things got sad or out of control.
As I imagine was the case for many children of that era growing up in difficult homes, the notion of a Mary Poppins or Miss Price swooping in to save the day served as both a distraction and a ray of hope. Could the life that I was living, shaped as it was by my mother’s unremitting sadness and my father’s simmering anger, be a mistake? Could another life, another world, be waiting just outside the door or beyond my yard? Was it possible to escape, in a flash, from the brittle family dinners, tense car rides, and shouting matches?
When I was six, Angela Lansbury would have been 46, a full twenty years older than my mother was then, and almost as close in age to my emotionally-distant grandmother (my mother’s mother) as to my own mother. Nonetheless, the image of Angela Lansbury — blended into other Disney mother tropes — functioned, not only as a maternal figure to me, but as a magical maternal figure. Handcrafted by the guys at Disney, this mother was untouched by the harsh realities of depression, addiction, and eating disorders, or of having had children when she hadn’t meaningfully chosen to do so.
Fast forward with me to the mid 90s and there’s Angela Lansbury again, this time in the living room of the old house I rented in graduate school and that I shared, for a time, with my mother. This was after she’d nearly died in the hospital after a long coma from the ravages of decades of addiction and depression. My mother and I are sitting together companionably on the lumpy sofa watching Murder She Wrote. My mother is relaxed, smoking, distracted from the discomfort of being herself. At this point, Angela Lansbury would have been in her 60s, but she seemed far younger to me then than my mother did.
This was Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, living contentedly on her own, a writer’s life in a charming New England town, riding her bicycle, gardening, and, yes, solving murders. Although I was an adult in my mid-twenties by then, she was, still and again, the mother I wanted, the one who could both take care of herself and manage to care about my life as well. Angela Lansbury was the mother I could visit, look up to, someone who would remember my birthday and introduce me to her friends.
But more than that, during those last years and months of my mother’s life, Angela Lansbury was something my mother and I could agree on even when our lives couldn’t have been more different. I was in the frenzy of graduate school, teaching, studying, waiting tables, and making the most of life in a lively college town. My mother was drugged and in pain much of the time, and, as she had been for so much of her life, wearing her unhappiness like a cloak. Even so, on Sunday nights I could rely on her to raise her voice and call my name enthusiastically from her spot on the couch: “Jessica is on!”
What didn’t occur to me until just this week is that this iconic actress hadn’t just been a mother figure for me, she’d probably been one for my mother as well. Angela Lansbury had, after all, and in true sexist fashion, been playing older women since she was a teenager, including Elvis’ mother in Blue Hawaii in 1961 when she was only a few years older than he was. My mother, whom I’d always related to as MY (struggling, imperfect) caregiver, was, herself, a child longing for a magical escape. It turns out we had something in common after all.