It was a book that ended up literally battered with use: a large paperback Family Circus Treasury, given to my sister and I by my grandparents one Christmas. It boasted hundreds of cartoons, both the single-frame, circular black-and-white dailies, as well as the larger, full-color comics that were printed every Sunday on the funnies page. Amy and I pored over that book again and again, loving the domestic adventures of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and baby PJ. The paperback spine eventually gave way and the pages started to split at the binding; some masking tape repairs finally held it together (just).
When I heard the news that Bil Keane, creator of the Family Circus, died on Tuesday, I thought back to that book, and how much I loved the little family that he had brought to life. Even as a nine-year-old, I could understand much of the humor; there was little in the comic strip to offend or perplex a kid my age. This, of course, is why some people dismiss the cartoon as hokey or sentimental. It lacks the razor-sharp bite or satire of other strips, that’s true — and though I like wit and satire as much as the next gal, there is something to be said for humor that is gentle and poignant, that goes not necessarily for explosive laughs, but for nods of knowing recognition.
That’s what the cartoon excelled at, really: it was a celebration of the little moments and realities of family life. I can still remember several of the strips in that old treasury. One showed the harried mother in her bathrobe, supervising a messy breakfast table for her four kids, while one of them asked, “Mommy? How come daddies work and mommies don’t?” I remember a cartoon of the parents off in a hotel for a romantic getaway, where the dad says to the mom, “Isn’t it great to be away from the kids? No noise, no little voices … let’s call them.” I remember the cartoon my grandma used to have posted on her fridge, where Dolly comes home and says, “In school today, we learned about the pilgrims, who came to America in a Plymouth.”
As a mom now, the humor of the Family Circus speaks to me on an entirely new level. So much of the joy of parenting comes from the little moments, the sweet unaffected things that our kids say and do, the ways that their innocence softens our jaded adulthood. When I journal about my kids, it’s rarely about epic, life-changing events; I’m far more likely to record the fact that Matthew used to call guinea pigs “bunny pigs,” or that he once said, when I told him I had things all under control, “Mommy? What does it mean when you’re on top of control?” That’s so much of my life right there: registering and savoring the sweet things that my kids say and do in these early years, before they inevitably grow into awareness and self-consciousness. And I love that the Family Circus recognizes and celebrates that.
And it’s remarkably soothing, somehow, that the children in that cartoon never age. I see them in the paper now, thirty years later, and they are the same round-faced kids I used to know: Dolly with her bouncy ponytail, PJ with his cute little crewcut. I think there is a part of every mom who wants to freeze time, to keep our kids in their young adorable innocence forever. This cartoon answers that desire. Because of it, we can live indefinitely in the round borders of a sweet and gentle world, a place with no sharp corners, only love.
God bless you, Mr. Keane, and thank you.