Ana Veciana-Suarez

Celebrity deaths remind us of life’s fragility

Doris Day, who made her film debut in ‘Romance on the High Seas,’ died May 13.
Doris Day, who made her film debut in ‘Romance on the High Seas,’ died May 13. TNS

A few months back, during a get-together at the house, I glanced around the room and came to a disconcerting conclusion. While I had been busy raising children, tending house and establishing a career, I also had been slipping into the role of family historian. The trek from the children’s table to holding-down-the-fort generation was now complete.

“We’ve taken over for our parents,” I told The Hubby later that evening. “We’re now officially old.”

He was surprised by my surprise. After all, the passing of the baton hadn’t happened overnight. It had been a long (and expected) process.

I felt a similar disquiet last week, when three celebrities from my childhood died within days of each other. I hadn’t thought of them in years, but their obituaries definitely pushed my rewind button. Illness may cue us to our mortality and gray hair may be a wink to our useless vanity, but the death of those who once made us laugh is an altogether different nod to life’s fragility.

Peggy Lipton was the first to go. Remember her? A younger generation knew her from “Twin Peaks,” but to me she remained the waif-like Julie Barnes, the TV cop with the bell bottoms and the love beads. If you were a teenager in the late 1960s and early ’70s, you either dreamed of being her or, as in the case of the boys I knew, of dating her. In “The Mod Squad” she was everything I was not. Beautiful, fashionable, and free to be and do as she pleased. Her hair was perfect, ash blond and straight as a matchstick. Her sense of style — those mini-skirts! — fit the times in a way few other actresses had managed.

“She represented a type of person not seen on television before, the quintessential example of a new kind of woman, young and hip, with a resilience that complemented a truly gentle spirit,” wrote actor Kyle MacLachlan in Time magazine.

Next was Doris Day, the ever perky girl next door. Day was well-established as both an actress and singer by the time I was old enough to claim a spot in front of television set. In fact, when I hit high school in 1970, her popularity had begun to wane and her box-office draw had slipped. As sexual mores changed, comics dubbed her “The World’s Oldest Virgin.” She even turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” on moral grounds, thinking the script “vulgar and offensive.”

Nevertheless, Doris Day’s wholesomeness was enough to make her one of my late mother’s favorite celebrities. For a Cuban refugee family, Day represented what the rest of America looked like: blonde, blue-eyed and button-nosed. The public’s perception and reality hardly matched, however. I found out, while reading her obituary, that she had been married four times!

The next to exit the stage was comedian Tim Conway, he of the malleable face and quick wit. I first met him as a bumbling ensign in the sitcom, “McHale’s Navy” and couldn’t help but love him. Then on “The Carol Burnett Show” he proved his acting chops as a master ad-libber, a man with flawless timing and a wide variety of accents and expressions. You couldn’t stay mad at the world after watching him.

Now these stars who populated my childhood are gone, like so many other icons of my youth, and I’m once again forced to face time’s inexorable march. I’m sad they’re dead, true, but honestly this sadness carries more nostalgia than it does sorrow. They, like golden oldies on the radio, serve as reminders of fun times, and awkward times, and experimental times, and times of limitless potential and promise. Times I appreciate for what they taught me.

Maybe I need to check out some reruns. It’s never too late to recognize that looking back can make facing forward such a blessing.

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.

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