Andy and Me

Andy Griffith was grandfather, father, husband and son—all rolled into one

Andy Griffith and I go way back—although, it's true, I never actually met the man. I've caught a glimpse of him from afar, snooped around his house and visited my sister in the hospital while Andy, too, was a patient there.

Andy and my sister lived in the same small town of Manteo, North Carolina, a congenial place lined with redbud trees and rambling front porches much like the town of Mayberry. Her close friend is Andy's groundskeeper and caretaker (thus the opportunity to snoop around Andy's house). When he opened the front door of Andy's modest brick home, I caught a glimpse of Andy's guitar leaning on a stand in the front foyer. My heart almost stood still. The iconic guitar!

Well I remember Andy sitting on his front porch, guitar in hand, strumming songs like "Old Dan Tucker" or "You Are My Sunshine" to Aunt Bea, Barney and Opie. Those were the songs my mother sang to me when I was a girl growing up in Larchmont, N.Y., a far cry from Mayberry. Those were the songs my mother's own Southern parents sang to her when she was a girl growing up in Missouri.

Andy Griffith has been there for me since the beginning. "The Andy Griffith Show" first aired in 1960, when I was just two years old. It ran on primetime for the next eight years, then in reruns for the rest of my life. You can still catch an "Andy Griffith" marathon on TVLand, and I do—whenever I can.

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Back in the day, I'd come home from school, fling off my school uniform and maybe put on my flannel nightgown, make some cinnamon toast with butter, and snuggle into the red vinyl chair in the den to watch my Andy. The show was both an escape from and a validation of my own reality: an escape because this was the 1960s and while a few beatniks did show up occasionally on later episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show," they didn't create the strife my older hippie sisters and brother seemed to be stirring up in our family; a validation because the people in Mayberry spoke with same gentility and grace of my Southern grandparents.

We were Southerners who lived in New York, Catholics who lived among Jews, Republicans who lived among Democrats—my family was always a little different and a little off-kilter. But "The Andy Griffith Show" somehow felt like home to me.

As I grew up, got married and had my own children, Andy stayed with me. I like to watch him in the evening in the kitchen, usually while I'm cooking dinner. Andy brings back so many memories.

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First, there's Aunt Bea, very much like my own grandmother, Bobo, from her dovelike bosom and coiffed gray curls to her soft accent reminiscent of the Southern belles of Louisiana or Virginia. Like Bobo, Aunt Bea ran her kitchen with a starched apron over her dress and a wooden spoon in her hand, whipping up dishes like fried chicken with mashed potatoes and pot roast with collards or okra. Bobo used to save the fried bits of flour left over from her chicken for me, layed out crisp and greasy on a sheet of paper towel. I never actually saw Aunt Bea doing that for Opie—she was more into pies—but she definitely expressed her love for both him and Andy by her dedication to their stomachs.

Then there's Andy himself, a cross between both my own father and my mother's father. Photos of Andy as a young actor actually look like my father—full lips, dark brooding brow, wavy hair. As he aged, though, he strangely morphed into Granddaddy—with his nice comfortable paunch and easy manner, winning smile and "howdys" to everyone he met along the street. Picture Andy and Opie, walking along in Mayberry, stopping to pass the time of day with Floyd the barber or Goober the gas station guy. That's Grandaddy and me, walking along the sidewalk in Larchmont, stopping to say "hey" to Mrs. Fuller in the apartment upstairs or Mr. Foley, the mailman. In the fast-paced N.Y. suburb in which we lived–with dads in suits racing to trains and moms driving to appointments and lessons and errands–Grandaddy always had time to set awhile. So did Andy. So do I.

And don't forget Opie, that complex character who represents so many aspects of my life. First of course, Opie was me, learning life's lessons at Granddaddy's knee. Then he was my older brother, Phillip, having adventures away from the family that we could only guess about. Like Opie, Phillip hung out with the guys, got in trouble, had fights and did boyish things with slingshots and fishing poles a girl of eight could never quite aspire to. But I could admire him all the same. And I did admire Phillip with all the unrequited love of a little sister—still do, in fact. Later, I married a guy that looks a bit like Ron Howard, Opie grown up, and had a little red-headed freckled boy we named Tom, the spitting image of Opie himself.

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So what does Andy mean to me today? It would be sacrilegious to say he's my church or my Bible, but he definitely has elements of both. It's kind of like the "What Would Jesus Do?" thing, only it's "What Would Andy Do?" instead. Case in point:

A few years ago, our son Tom was arrested down at his college town in Eugene, Oregon, for carrying a beer in his back pocket.

"I forgot it was there, Mom! Seriously!" he later explained.

An incredibly strong-sighted policeman spotted Tom ambling along the sidewalk around midnight, cut him off at the pass, leaped out of his car and yelled, "How old are you?!" The hapless—and terrified—Tom sputtered out, "Uhhh … 21" and made a move as if to bolt. The cop sprang forward, tackled, cuffed and threw Tom in the back of the police car before Tom could even take a step back.

"Sure, kid, you're as much 21 years old as I am." (The cop was right; Tom was only 20.) "If you hadn't of lied, you'd be on your merry way home by now. Instead to the jailhouse you go, buddy."

I got a recorded message as to Tom's whereabouts in the middle of the night, and I headed down to Eugene the next morning.

So there I was, waiting in the parking lot of the jailhouse in Eugene, gazing at the cinderblock building surrounded by a barbed wire fence that currently housed my own little Opie. I thought to myself, "Well, this is about as far away as you can get from 'The Andy Griffith Show.' I don't think Opie ever got thrown in jail." I was deeply depressed, and the pounding rain on my windshield didn't improve my spirits. But then it came to me. "What am I thinking? Andy's a sheriff! He worked in a jailhouse! And what about Otis, the town drunk! This is ALL about Andy!"

As the rain came down in sheets over my windshield, and I waited, and waited some more, I thought about Andy. If only Tom were tucked cozily in that little jailhouse, with Barney and Andy chatting outside the bars and maybe Aunt Bea stopping by with a covered dish to bolster his spirits. They'd give him a good talking to, make sure he realized his mistakes, and send him on his way with a couple of butter and sugar sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. He'd go back to his classes, study hard, and later—as town mayor—come back to thank Andy for giving him another chance in life.

Well, I thought, Andy ain't here right now, but I can certainly dish out the same kind of down-home and commonsense advice he'd get from Andy. So that's what I did.

"Did I forget to tell you never to lie to a police officer?" I asked Tom when he finally slunk out the backdoor of the jailhouse. "In fact, lying in general is a bad idea. And, uh, Tom? It's probably not a good idea to lie about your age and then give your real name. Lesson learned?" Tom nodded glumly and we drove back home.

When I heard of Andy Griffith's death few years back, I felt a profound sadness. Andy Griffith was grandfather, father, husband and son—all wrapped up in one for me. Granted, I can always watch his show to perk myself up or return to my roots. But the opportunity to sit down and talk to Andy is gone forever.

I guess I always thought it could happen—that I could turn a corner somewhere and come upon Andy Griffith, sitting on a park bench, guitar in hand, waiting to pass the time of day with me.

"Well how do, Miss Julie," he'd say with a smile. "Come and set a spell with me, why don't you?" I'd join him, gladly.