Bil Keane’s death put a lump in my throat.
Keane, the creator of “The Family Circus,” died at age 89 last week. I read his comic strip every day when I was growing up (now I read the papers on my computer and, regrettably, hardly get to see it).
The strip’s characters include Billy, 7; Dolly, 5; Jeffy, 3; and PJ, 1 1/2, as well as their mom and dad. It celebrates childhood innocence and the foibles of big-family life.
According to The Washington Post, the very first strip, published Feb. 29, 1960, “is a drawing of a census taker who inquires of a puzzled woman surrounded by a roomful of toys: ‘Any children?'”
In another strip from the 1960s, a deliveryman is knocking on the front door and Dolly answers it. Her mother can be seen cleaning the shower beyond the man’s view. “Come on in,” says Dolly. “Mommy is in the bathtub.”
A strip from the 1970s shows Billy looking at a photo of his father. The caption reads: “Mommy, how did Daddy get so little?”
A strip from the 1980s shows Jeff asking his mom, “So what else did I do funny when I was little?”
Keane’s cartoons, based on his own experience as a father of five, reflect the values of the World War II generation.
Keane, a Catholic, was stationed in Australia during World War II and was smitten by a woman he met in the office complex they shared. After the war, he returned to Australia, married her, and brought her to America, where they began their family.
Since he was able to do his illustrations from home rather than an office, he was around his kids all day long.
For many years he captured the simple suburban existence that millions of American families were experiencing– certainly the one I experienced.
My parents worked hard and saved money so they could move my sisters and me to a new, four-bedroom suburban home.
Everything revolved around the well-being of us kids. They moved us close to a church to instill solid values in us. They sent us to a private Catholic school to give us a good education.
Families didn’t go to restaurants much then — they didn’t do much of anything outside the house that cost money.
And so our existence was much like that of “The Family Circus” — everything centered on the home. Ours was filled with kids and chaos and neighbors and relatives always coming and going.
In 1990, Keane explained to The New York Times how he approached the strip.
“I don’t just try to be funny,” he said. “Many of my cartoons are not a belly laugh. I go for nostalgia, the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye, the tug in the heart.”
Well, as I said, Keane certainly has put a lump in my throat.
The world has gotten a lot more cynical since “The Family Circus” began its run in 1960. Family life has certainly gotten messier for some.
Parents have to work much harder to fend off outside influences and graphic media images that are competing for their children’s attention.
Still, many are succeeding at producing a loving, gentle, slightly chaotic family life like the one depicted in Keane’s cartoons.
The fact is, his 51-year-old strip reflects values that will never go out of style — love, respect, kindness, gratitude, sacrifice — and in our cynical times, we need to reinforce them more than ever.
Lucky for us, one of Keane’s sons, a father himself, will continue the strip.
God bless you and your son, Bil Keane.