It is a fitting poetic miracle that Florence Henderson was born on Valentine’s Day and passed away on Thanksgiving. She was not a perfect person, but it seems that everything she did emanated from a spirit and intention of love and gratitude. I know this first hand because I had the honor and privilege to assist her in writing her autobiography Life is Not a Stage several years ago. I have never met someone in show business who was as caring about everyone she met and as enthusiastic about all the opportunities she had been given. It didn’t bother her in the least that people associated her with only one role (Carol Brady of The Brady Bunch) during a long and multifaceted career. She was so comfortable in her skin. It was all part of her spirituality in action, something that impressed me about her above all else.
One a week for six months, we got together usually over a meal, and she told me about her life from her earliest childhood days through her stint on Dancing With the Stars in late 2010. From the start, she didn’t hold back. She understood that this was her singular opportunity to tell her story–and she wanted to use it in such a way that might inspire people in positive ways, or at worst prevent them from making the same mistakes she had made.
As she told me in stark detail about her childhood–the poverty, abandonment and abuse, she was in tears, clearly indicating to me that this was a subject that she had rarely talked about to a stranger like me. Going to bed dressed in layers of clothes with rags stuffed in holes in the walls to fend off the winter cold are images that are hard for me to forget. Her mother made old flour sacks into dresses that were imperfectly sewn to say the least. “It will never be noticed on a galloping horse,” her mother said to quiet the child. Before she left town leaving 12-year-old Florence and her next older sister to deal with their alcoholic father, she groomed her young daughter in a talent that would prove to be her ticket out of poverty. By age 2, Florence already had a repertory of 50 songs. She joked to me how she has never stopped singing for her supper.
Out of this deprivation came a slew of people who recognized something divinely special in this child. They included a childhood friend from the other side of the tracks who watched out over her and give her material and psychological comfort when needed. Another friend convinced her wealthy parents to underwrite voice lessons for Florence and eventually give her a scholarship to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. From there, in similarly miraculous fashion, she was taken under the wings of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein.
It was clear to me how Florence lived her life in the ultimate spirit of “paying it forward.” She never forgot the kindness and generosity bestowed upon her. In every job she performed and to every stranger she gave a hug, Florence showered everyone with love and made each and every one of us all feel special.
I even had one little taste of a Florence miracle. During one of our last sessions together, Florence went into great detail about her second marriage to John Kappas. She talked about her great love and happiness and conversely about the enormous grief she had when he passed away. It was emotionally the most difficult time she had during any of our sessions, but what she said was extraordinarily beautiful. She described sitting out on her patio and feeling the pit of despair when suddenly out of nowhere came not one, not two or three but a whole squadron of dragonflies flying down and circling around her. She told me of two other uncanny incidents that happened in rapid succession where it was as if these beautiful winged creatures were bringing her a comforting message to trust that everything was going to be okay.
After she told me these stories, we talked some more for another half hour, but it was clear to both of us that we had emptied the well for that day. I left and went off to meet a friend for coffee. As I waited, I took out my little digital recorder to play back a little bit of the amazing interview I had just completed. Rewinding it a bit, I discovered to my horror that the tape was blank. My batteries had died sometime during the session. How could I ask her to do this painful but perfect interview again? I was devastated.
When I got home later that evening, I took out the recorder again and rewound it to the beginning. And to my astonishment, the sound faded out exactly to the second as she finished her magical tale of the dragonflies. All that was lost was the unimportant banter at the end.
Being around Florence was a big spiritual lesson for me. She taught me that when you live everyday like it’s Valentine’s and Thanksgiving, you make room for miracles to happen.
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