Betty White was trending on Twitter last week. Just in case you don’t know who White is, she’s the actress, comedienne, and animal rights activist whose career in show business spans eight decades. She worked in radio, variety shows, game shows, and sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I first learned about White from the 1980’s show The Golden Girls.
I was about 14 when the show first aired in 1985. I didn’t really watch it on my own then, but my Cape Breton grandmother, Elizabeth, did, including when she’d come to visit. I remember her laughing at the antics and jokes of the four girls — Rose (Betty White), Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Dorothy (Bea Arthur), and Sophia (Estelle Getty) – who lived together in Miami in a house with a lanai.
I didn’t really get a lot of the occasional off-colour humour back then, but I re-watched the show when I was in my 20s. Not only did I laugh my head off, but I realized my grandmother had a great sense of humor, too.
Let me tell you about my grandmother.
To me and all my 21 cousins, she was Grandmother. She was born in Grande Greve, a small community in Richmond County, not far from St. Peter’s, Cape Breton. She was the third youngest of seven children of Patrick Campbell, a sea captain, and his wife, Ellen, who ran the home where they rented out some rooms to boarders.
In her 20s, she moved to Halifax on her own and worked at the Zellers on Barrington Street. She was there during the VE Day Riots of May 1945. She met my grandfather, Ronald MacDonald, who was from Soldiers Cove and who grew up in a white saltbox house you can still see up on a hill from Highway #4. His family owned the old MacDonald’s Hotel for years. Grandmother didn’t get married until she was 28, in what I consider an act of rebellion for the 1940s.
The couple moved to Sydney River and had nine children, including my mother, Jean. For about 18 years, Grandmother worked as a nursing attendant at the Cape Breton Hospital, known on the island as the Butterscotch Palace because of the caramel colour of its exterior paint. You could see the hospital from my grandmother’s living room window.
I remember my grandmother loving game shows like the Price is Right, Jeopardy, and Wheel of Fortune. She also watched the news and Golden Girls, of course. She always had Werthers Originals butterscotch candies or Scotch mints tucked next to her rocking chair in front of the TV. She made the best chowder, Nanaimo bars, and sweet rolls with tops she shined up with melted butter.
Grandmother was quiet, private, and very Catholic. There were dried palms leave shaped into crosses and Novena prayer cards stuck into door frames around the house. Rosaries hung over her dresser mirror. She was kind and often slipped a few dollars into her grandchildren’s hands as they left after a visit. There were times I wonder how she tolerated us all running around the house during summer visits.
But she also didn’t take any crap from anyone, including from me.
When I was about 25 years old, I went to visit and stayed at her house and she offered me a steak, which I declined because at that time I didn’t eat red meat. She called me an arsehole.
That same summer, after a night at Smooth Herman’s in downtown Sydney, I made my way back to her house at about 5am. She had locked me out. I waited on the front steps until she came to the door and said something to the effect of “where have you been Miss Beauty Queen?”
She was the family matriarch and I think she kept things together in ways I don’t even know about now. Thursday, November 11 would have been her 105th birthday.
I got thinking about all of this recently when I realized I am now the age Rue McClanahan was when she started on Golden Girls in 1984. I have to say it took the wind out of me when I did the math on that. Where did the time go?
I often joked that when I was older I would start a Golden Girls compound where women my age could live, hang out on the lanai or in the kitchen, eat cheesecake, and talk about the dates we went on.
But the biggest revelation was that I’d never want to go back to those years when I first started watching the Golden Girls. This age is so much better. I get paid to write, I ride horses every week, I have a fantastic kid, and I’m getting much better at not taking crap from people.
Golden Girls was a groundbreaking show in many ways. Here was a prime-time sitcom that focused on the lives of four older women in their 50s and 60s. They had careers, the volunteered in their communities, they were vibrant, funny, and even crass. And they went on dates and had sex! In other words, they were still relevant in a society that praises youth, and where older women are expected to disappear.
The show, which was a hit and ran until 1992, covered so many topics over its seven seasons, including racism, homophobia, addiction, chronic illness, ageism, abusive relationships, sexual harassment.
The show and its stars also set the stage for other shows with all-female casts like Sex and the City, which I watched (the movies are dreadful, though), and Girls, which I didn’t watch. Yet, Golden Girls still set the standard. White is the last surviving actress from the Golden Girls and is considered an icon. That’s why she was trending on Twitter; after almost two years of losses from COVID and everything else, no one wants to lose White, who will turn 100 on January 17, 2022.
The show wasn’t all seriousness, of course.
One of my favourite episodes is One for the Money from the third season. The girls signed up for a dance-until-you-drop marathon. As the end neared and the girls, each with a dance partner, withered on, Rose breaks out into a solo, complete with flips and a finale in which she lands doing the splits. It’s clear a stunt double is doing all that flipping, but no matter — it’s still one of the funniest episodes and makes me laugh until I cry. The Golden Girls knew how to have a good time.
We all know Golden Girls, too. Maybe they’re your grandmothers, mothers, sisters, or friends. I know so many women who continue to be relevant and incredibly visible as they get older, even as everything else tells them that youth is what they should covet. They’re writers, teachers, artists, leaders, and activists. I’ve met many of them through the Examiner. They’re funny, vibrant, smart, adventurous, and they’re tired of taking your crap. In every older woman, there’s a bit of Rose, Dorothy, Blanche, and Sophia.
My daughter, who is almost 19 and who was about three when my grandmother died, just discovered the show herself. I’ve heard her laughing at the jokes like I did and my grandmother did, too. She’s a Golden Girl in training and already has a fondness for cheesecake.
As for me, I’m feeling good about my 50-plus status. The Golden Girls knew what was up. Maybe I’ll start building that compound after all. It’ll even have a lanai and an endless supply of cheesecake.