A childhood friend's mom died last month and when he called to tell me, I felt a real sense of loss because she had made such an indelible impression on me as a child. She was intelligent, caring and sincere, ever wise to the ways of little boys (she had three), but utterly feminine and always well turned out and wonderfully fragrant .
The first time I slept over at my friend's house, at age 9, his mom came into his room at bedtime to tuck us in. As I lay in bed, she knelt beside me to kiss me goodnight, making sure I was OK to be away from home overnight and basically giving me the same degree of attention she had given her own son seconds earlier. By kneeling the way she did, I felt like she was my friend, someone who wanted -- or at least knew how -- to be on my level.
I experienced a similar sense of loss when I learned of Barbara Billingsley's death over the weekend. She was a friend's mom, too, in a way, one I'd come to know well over countless years of watching "Leave It to Beaver" reruns. I always liked her as a child, and in my fantasies knew that if I ever was invited over to the Cleavers' house, I would rather hang out in the kitchen and talk to June than play in the yard with Wally and the Beav.
A lot of ridicule has been made over the years about the unrealistic idealism reflected in Billingsley's June Cleaver character, particularly the fact that she wore pearls and high heels to do her housework. But there is something to be said for making the extra effort it takes to maintain a high standard, both in deed and in appearance. A little glamour can be a good thing when it comes to mothers. My friend's mom had it in spades; there was always an air about her that commanded respect and inspired admiration. Same for June.
Billingsley brought an intelligence to the role that gave June a more serious edge than she might have otherwise had. Some may think of June as a mere helpmate to husband Ward, but she nonetheless navigated the storms, ferreted out her boys' problems, gave considered advice at every opportunity and consistently orchestrated happy endings. You knew she had the goods to handle everything by herself if need be.
And while she may have been too sweet for some, at least June wasn't a ditz or a cardboard cutout like some of the other TV mothers of her time. The key difference that set her apart was that aside from being a mother, she was also a friend to her children. And that, I think, was why I liked her so much.
I bet she smelled great, too.