Mama was always proud for people who were able to pull themselves up and do well in life. She rooted for them, bragged on them and delighted in their happiness and happenings.
In the early-1990s, a little boy from our family — my cousin’s baby — found himself co-starring on the NBC drama “I’ll Fly Away.” Aaron Bennett, billed then as John Aaron Bennett, was 7 years old when he was cast as the youngest son of the patriarch played by Sam Waterston. The show, named after the old hymn written by Albert E. Brumley, was short-lived — two seasons — but won every major television award from Emmys to the Humanitas to the revered Peabody.
In the astounding way that life weaves together people, the show was co-created by Josh Brand and John Falsey who gave my Tink his first script assignment (“St. Elsewhere”) and it aired on NBC, the network that my father-in-law had run a few years prior as its chairman and CEO. It was, in all fairness, Grant Tinker who made the network solid enough to give a serious show like “I’ll Fly Away” an opportunity. It is about a small-town Southern lawyer negotiating a path through the early Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and ‘60s. Renowned actress, Regina Taylor, co-starred as the family’s maid, helping the motherless family.
Aaron won the first acting job he ever auditioned for at age 2 by impressing casting directors with his cute version of singing, “I am stuck on Band-Aid ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me.” Straight out of the box, against all odds, he got a national commercial. When he was cast in the NBC drama, Mama was button-popping proud. The 7-year-old responded to his zealous fan by sending her an autographed 8x10 which he painstakingly signed in tight cursive script. She promptly taped the photo above a full-length mirror on the closet door of her sewing room which ensured that every woman who tried on a dress and checked her reflection would see the star of our family.
That photo stayed taped there for almost 20 years until Mama died. “Isn’t this sweet?” Louise asked as she reached up and finally took it down. “Mama was proud of him.” When Aaron married several years ago, I traveled to Daytona Beach to represent the family and was touched to tears by the sweetness of the couple that was uniting. At the reception afterwards, Aaron’s grinning grandfather, Johnny, sat down beside me.
“I am so proud of that boy.” By that point, Aaron had answered the call to follow the Lord and his bride, Andrea, stood ready to join him with full heart.
“When he was 14, he got a script for a movie part,” Johnny recalled. “It wasn’t a family kind of movie. You know, sex and cussing. The language was awful. Aaron read it and then went to his mama and said, ‘I can’t do this kind of stuff and if this is what it calls for me to continue as an actor, I’m through.’ And that was that. He never acted again. Now, he’s answered the Lord’s call and I couldn’t be prouder. Wouldn’t Paw-paw be proud?”
Our grandfather was a spirit-called preacher of the mountains and, yes, he would be very proud. I’m sorry that Johnny and Mama didn’t live to see all the truly important work that Aaron has done. He moved his family across country to plant a church in Portland, Ore., in one of the most un-churched states in the union. The other day, Tink and I got our own autograph from Aaron in the form of a thank you note for a contribution we made to his ministry, part of our tithe for a television project we had done together.
The project, ironically, was for NBC. Isn’t it amazing how the Lord doeth work and things circle ‘round?