At 11:40 a.m., the world was still decipherable. But then the phone rang. It was a friend. His voice was hoarse, cracking. "Did you hear?" he asked.
"Did I hear what?"
"Turn on the TV," he said, and hung up. For a moment I sat there. It's rare when one actually has the choice of not hearing bad news. Morbid curiosity always emerges victorious, however. A click of the remote, and there was her face. A voice was saying something an unbelievable mélange of words.
"Nell Carter found dead in her home, apparently of natural causes. She was 54."
Click. The channel changes.
"'80s sitcom star Nell Carter discovered dead."
"saddened by the news of Tony Award-winning actress and star of Gimme a Break! ."
"the death of."
Blackness. And there I was--sitting dumbly in a quiet room. Instantly, everything had changed. Everyone, both great and small, now resided in a Nell-less world.
Nell Carter: Superstar
It's almost an insult to rattle off the resumé of someone as well-known as Nell. But by listing her accomplishments, perhaps our grief can be nudged closer to fond remembrance. After a passing dalliance in the dirty backalley jazz clubs of the Deep South, young Nell Carter followed her dreams to the big time.
New York City.
Romantic? Yes. But Nell soon discovered the bright lights of the Big Apple also hid some bruises as well as worms. Cold, hungry, and homeless, Nell was forced to do what no young woman should ever have to do: accept a role on the soap opera Ryan's Hope.
But Nell wasn't about to give up. She took that job and parlayed the experience into something different an even worse TV show called The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. By this point, the average person would be considering seeking employment as a needle washer for heroin junkies.
But not Nell.
Nell persisted, and just when she thought she hit bottom she fell even further by joining the cast of a Broadway musical. Sure, she won a "Tony" for her role in Ain't Misbehavin', but she probably would've happily exchanged the experience for a stubborn case of herpes.
Then, in 1981, a miracle occurred. She landed the role of a lifetime--as a black maid in the weekly sitcom Gimme a Break! In the show, she was the wisecracking housekeeper for a cranky widowed police chief and his gaggle of premenstrual daughters. While her primary job was to provide a womanly role model--offering advice on everything from tampon insertion to dealing with a bleeding IUD--she was also forced to sing those execrable Broadway show tunes.
Though Nell garnered an Emmy for the role, her true lasting accomplishment was something she never expected. She kept the door open for other black actresses who wanted to play maids on television.
Yes, Nell Carter was a groundbreaker. While there had been other black maids in the past, she played a black maid as late as 1987. Nell, along with the crew of Gimme a Break!, was brave enough to ignore the charges of "racism," and return us to a simpler time a time when blacks were treated as one of the family, and paid well for the privilege.
"Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short. But when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat--we say we have had our day."
You know who said that? Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"If I think more about death than some other people, it is probably because I love life more than they do."
You know who said that? Angelina Jolie.
While the Emerson quote is both lofty and poetic, it is defeatist. Emerson would tell us to ignore Nell's passing, as if she were just another season amongst eons of seasons. Therefore, he will be ignored as stupid.
However, Angelina Jolie--though crazier than a bedbug wearing an Abe Lincoln beard while singing "Come on Eileen"--hits the nail right on the head. Death is worth obsessing over. It's worth moping around, and crying, and then laughing, and being utterly speechless. And those who truly loved life--as Nell Carter so plainly did--are they to be so suddenly forgotten? And if we forget her, then shall we also forget the Punky Brewsters, the Tony Danzas, and the Charles in Charges?
Shall we forget the Mr. Belvederes?
No, they will NOT be forgotten, and neither will Nell. Because she wasn't just a fleeting summer. She was the crisp autumn, the snows of December, the tornadoes of March, the darling buds of May. She was an eon of seasons--and even though we were gifted with only six seasons of Gimme a Break!, that will never, ever be enough.
Words are condemned to fail. Memories of those we love are destined to live. And during this dark time of national mourning, we must remember we've been given "the break" Nell Carter had always asked for--an everlasting summer of memories. Or at the very least, reruns.