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Thank You, Penny Marshall

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This is my personal take on an amazing broad (that’s a compliment) that changed our lives for the better.

I won’t profess to be some expert in the field of all things Penny Marshall – I didn’t follow her life and achievements like a fan girl, dissecting her mood through every unfortunate paparazzi encounter. I didn’t have posters with her signature bob and banged-framed face tacked to my wall. For the most part, I never really noticed she was there – but in fact, she always was…there was literally not one day in my 42 years when Penny Marshall wasn’t somewhere in the background.

When I heard the news Tuesday, I cried. When I tried to start my day Wednesday, I found myself crying again, uncontrollably, and the reaction kind of confused me…and then, I got it. It wasn’t just sadness that she died, although it is sad, it was an overwhelming sense of appreciation – I suddenly realized that that one woman shaped my entire life, opened up worlds of possibilities that didn’t exist before she did and what she gave me was nothing short of everything.

I was born in the best year ever: 1976. Sure, there was still a Cold War going on and we had a long way to go in the area of civil rights and women’s’ equality, but that year had some shining moments that, like Marshall, only now feel as important as they truly were. There were hints of change being seeded everywhere in that one random year: we elected Jimmy Carter, landed on Mars, passed the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Award Act, inducted the first female class to Annapolis Naval Academy, the “Steves” gave birth to Apple…and Laverne and Shirley showed up on our TV screens, changing the game for women forever.

LAVERNE & SHIRLEY – Special Coverage – Opening Titles – Shoot Date: December 12, 1975. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

It may seem simplistic and trivial to younger generations who have always just known they could accomplish anything they set their minds to, but we forget that wasn’t always the case. I was damn lucky to cut my baby teeth on a new vision of women on TV, in comedy, in the workplace – before that, it was all too common to be represented by characters who married straight out of high school, had three babies and always made sure the casserole was done before hubby came home from work. Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing at all wrong with making a life as a loving housewife and mother, if that’s your choice. But for too many, it was assumed that was the only choice. Mary Tyler Moore broke that seal for the likes of my mother but Laverne DeFazio made it seem real, and normal. I never realized the impact that show, and Penny Marshall in general, had on my life and the decisions I would make long after it went to syndication.

Laverne & Shirley represented young women as single, independent, working, struggling, funny and loving people who prioritized friendship as a lasting force. The last piece is just as important as the rest and until then, the focus on adult female friendship was fuzzy, to say the least. But I was fortunate enough to have that visual and it shifted my trajectory. Looking back at my own life post-divorce, I know that it was my friendships that kept me afloat, that provided companionship, encouragement and laughter when I needed it most and kept me from the demise of dating the wrong people just to cure loneliness. 

My best friend was my roommate while I raised young kids – we cooked, cleaned, restored and built things together. We reminded each other that there was more to our stories yet to come and inspired one another to keep learning and dreaming. She convinced me that I could pull off going back to college as an adult and single parent – and I did. She believed I could build a career as a journalist, and I sure as shit am trying. Years later, she’s still my best friend and we’re there to lean on, inspire and laugh at each other with every new chapter – it’s that bond that keeps us sane. Our friendship did the heavy lifting but Laverne & Shirley set the stage for the role friendship should play, and it made all the difference.

Laverne & Shirley. Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Penny Marshall would go on to be a force. She broke down barriers for women in film and quietly carved new paths we all benefit from. But it was that show in 1976 that allowed a whole generation of young girls to see new possibilities for the way life could be. It made it okay to not always know your way, to not know how to make casserole, to want more than a life prescribed, to love your friends as much as you would love a spouse.

She changed what it could mean to be a woman in the world and that changed my life, and for that…thank you, Penny.

Rest in Peace.

P.S. Baseball will allow crying today.


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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.