Lessons from the Mountain

Lessons from the Mountain

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by Mary McDonough

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A fascinating look at what it's like to grow up in front of and beyond the cameras. —Eve PlumbFor nine seasons, Mary McDonough was part of one of the most beloved families in television history. Just ten years-old when she was cast as the pretty, wholesome middle child Erin, Mary grew up on the set of The Waltons, alternately embracing and rebelling

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A fascinating look at what it's like to grow up in front of and beyond the cameras. —Eve PlumbFor nine seasons, Mary McDonough was part of one of the most beloved families in television history. Just ten years-old when she was cast as the pretty, wholesome middle child Erin, Mary grew up on the set of The Waltons, alternately embracing and rebelling against her good-girl onscreen persona. Now, as the first cast member to write about her experiences on the classic series, she candidly recounts the joys and challenges of growing up Walton—from her overnight transformation from a normal kid in a working class, Irish Catholic family, to a Hollywood child star, to the personal challenges that led her to take on a new role as an activist for women's body image issues. Touching, funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and always illuminating, Lessons from the Mountain is the story of everything Mary McDonough learned on her journey over—and beyond—that famous mountain. "For someone who started out as a sweet little girl afraid to speak up, it certainly is a pleasure to hear her shout from the top of the mountain now! —Alison Arngrim, New York Times bestselling author of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch"She's a radiant woman whose truth comes from within. . .if I had to pick one word that described Mary Beth, it would be resilience." —Earl Hamner, Creator of The Waltons"Mary is a whole lot more than Erin on The Waltons. This book shows how she's handled all the highs and lows with grace." –George Clooney Includes Never Before Published Bonus Chapter!

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What I Learned From Erin Walton


Copyright © 2011 Mary McDonough and Beverly Nault
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7582-6366-7

Chapter One

Irish Luck

I am the middle daughter of a working-class family. My parents were poor growing up, and both came to the "City of Angels" to find their gold. My father's brother, Jimmy, was ill with what we now suspect was cystic fibrosis. His doctor suggested a warmer climate, so the whole family left the farm in Beemer, a very small town in Nebraska, and headed west to California.

My father Lawrence McDonough taught us all about life on the farm, devotion to family, God, loyalty to our Irish roots, and the Cornhuskers, of course. Once he told me about how the well-to-do in Beemer treated the less fortunate. Years later, after The Waltons was a huge hit, we visited Beemer. He was so happy to be invited to dinner at the homes of those who had shunned him as a kid. I wanted to be mean right back to them, reject them. I said, "Daddy, just tell them no. They weren't nice to you when you were a kid." I have a real sense of justice, and knowing my father had been rejected as a kid hit my fairness nerve, made me protective. Okay, if I tell on myself, maybe I wanted just deserts, comeuppance, to level the playing field, or even a little revenge.

He just smiled and said, "Now, Mary B., we'll go and you'll be nice." I begrudgingly ate more fried chicken dinners on that trip than I could digest. As I watched him at all those dinners, I saw his integrity and learned lessons in dignity, grace, and respect. He was a true role model for me. To this day, I strive not to be negative and resentful. But I am only his daughter, I am not my father.

My daddy was my hero, and all I wanted was to make him smile and receive his adoring approval.

Early on in his California experience, he worked as a valet in Hollywood. He vowed that someday he would be successful enough to have someone park his car. He was employed at Lockheed before entering the navy. After his discharge, he worked for several companies before realizing he could help his family more with his own business, so he started an automatic transmission service shop with his brothers. So you can imagine how a television show for one of his kids would be a dream never imagined. My dad did get his car parked on more than one occasion, and later even escorted me to the Emmy Awards.

My father is the first layer of my mountain. This boy from the farm rose to every challenge. He instilled in me a rock-solid foundation of love, protection, political involvement, right from wrong, Catholicism, a fierce work ethic, and intense self-scrutiny, all essential foundations for life. He was demanding, but a hard worker who expected as much from me and everyone around him as he did himself. He started the transmission business with his brothers and eventually developed other investment properties. He was tireless in his work ethic and dedication to his family. He strove to raise our standard of living above his own poor beginnings. My brothers and I still talk about how we became who we are through his strength and personality.

A Kennedy Catholic, he instilled in us a political foundation based on our faith. If he had only known then that his little girl would grow up and meet a few Kennedys, it would have seemed impossible to him. I remember political debates he had with my friend Caren's dad, our Republican assemblyman. I couldn't believe he'd argue with my friend's dad, but they did every time they sat down for a chat. I don't think he could help himself. He was a man dedicated to change, even if it was just to change someone else's mind.

Everyone loved him and the personal attention he paid anyone he met. He taught us all to drive, and then a few years ago at a reunion, at least seven people told me he had also taught them to drive. He must have been driving an awful lot. I had no idea.

Dad took all the kids in the neighborhood to ride horses, drive go-carts, fishing, camping, to the beach, and to ethnic restaurants. Anywhere he could, to give us an adventure. He'd load up the car and take whoever jumped in.

He always wanted us to try new things. At one time, he had heard about a restaurant where they made drinks in pineapples and coconuts. We got all dressed up and he drove us to a Polynesian-themed restaurant, complete with palm trees, torches, and Tiki carvings. I had never seen anything like it, so exotic, so different from Northridge, where we lived. Years later, I realized he had taken us to Trader Vic's—all the way to Beverly Hills for a drink! Such fun. My adventurous spirit was born in those excursions.

So, obviously, I was born and raised a daddy's girl. He used to sing "You Are My Sunshine," touch my red hair, and say it was the only gold he owned. Because of who he was, I adored him and desperately wanted his acceptance.

Leaving La Junta

My mother Elizabeth Murray McDonough is the second strata of my mountain. She was beautiful, always. She had a flair for fashion and wore the gloves, hat, and matching purse to prove it. She owned wonderful sets of jewelry from the fifties and sixties, with the coordinating necklace, bracelet, and earrings. Looking back at her in old photographs, I find it hard to believe how well she pulled herself and all of us kids together, picture perfect every time. She also came from a hardworking family, but she had a tougher childhood than Daddy did.

Mother's family was poor. She had escaped her abusive, alcoholic father from the small town of La Junta, Colorado, and came to California. She was kind and sweet. After all the horror stories we heard about her childhood, I couldn't believe she would still visit her father, and take us all back to Colorado so we would know our grandparents.

I once asked her why she was so nice to someone who was so mean to her. She said, "Grandpa was in the war, and he was never the same when he came back. Something happened to him over there." She took a moment and then continued. "I think that's why he beat us."

As a young girl, I remember her sense of forgiveness for her father. She had a sense of duty as a daughter that was passed on and had a lasting impression on me. She hated arguments and disappeared at the first sight of a confrontation. We were not allowed to yell in our house. I never heard my parents argue, and we never really learned how to fight as a result. Disagreements of any kind were too uncomfortable for her. She would say, "Like snow, I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime." She found Catholicism and my father in the same church in Highland Park, and created a new life for herself.

She is the first "feminist" I ever met. She hated that term, because she somehow thought it meant giving up being feminine and a lady. No matter how much I told her she could be a feminist and a lady, she would say, "I still like to have doors opened for me and my arm through your father's." But she was truly the first person who taught me to be independent and to create my own life.

"Mary, play the field," she would say when I was little. "Then go to college, and play the field, then have a career, and play the field, then travel the world, and then maybe think about settling down."

Perhaps because she had to be dependent on my father, she wanted me to learn not to rely on a man for things. She told me I could do anything the boys could do, "and probably better than they can, too. I always did." I think she was better at sports than some boys, when she was young, but was teased for being a tomboy. She didn't want me held back because I was female. She had survived adversity and wanted to instill independence in me. It worked.

Once, when she was still living at home, Mother got fed up with the beatings and my grandfather's mood swings. She packed a suitcase and took it to school with her, intending to run away to a girlfriend's house. When my grandfather realized she was gone, he hunted her down and banged on her girlfriend's door and threatened—and no doubt also frightened—everyone inside. Her friend's mother let her go. My grandfather tied her to his truck with a rope, shoved her suitcase in her arms, and made her run behind the truck the four miles home. This is only one of the stories my mother shared with me after my grandfather died.

My mother wanted our childhoods to be different from hers in so many ways. She gave all of us the dance lessons she wanted for herself, and sat through more classes than I can count, to give me her dreams.

Her dreams became mine, and I soon found something I was good at. I don't remember my first dance class—it seems I always danced. I loved the pink tights, the black leotard, and wearing my hair in a bun. I loved my dance classes because I could express myself. My active little body loved to keep moving, and dance gave me an outlet combined with structure and discipline.

I went to Marge Patka's Dance Studio on Tampa Avenue and Sherman Way in Reseda. There were other dance studios with live piano players and fancier rooms, but for me, the simplicity of those hardwood floors, barres on the wall, and mirrors were enough. The record player sang out every tune we needed. I learned ballet, jazz, acrobatics, Hawaiian, Polynesian, and tap. I was never great at tap, which I attribute to my poor math skills. Ballet was it for me.

My favorite teacher was Stephanie—"a prima ballerina," my mother constantly called her. I didn't know what that meant. I just knew I loved Stephanie and was so happy to see her at every class. She gave me her joy of dance. Dancing felt natural to me, and gave me a sense of accomplishment and acceptance. It taught me discipline, which would help me later on the set.

Learning toe was a marker of growth for me. I struggled with the blisters, cramps, learning to stuff the perfect amount of lamb's wool in the shoes. I remember, once we had two shows at a recital and were told not to take our toe shoes off before the next show or our feet would swell. I didn't, but my feet swelled, anyway. When I finally took them off, my feet were bleeding into my toe shoes, which were forever stained with my discipline and hard work. Those shoes became a tangible sign of inner strength that helped me all through my life. Mind over matter, the show must go on, rise above it, pull yourself above the pain ... all those lessons.

Stephanie gave me solos in the recitals, and I felt special. My daddy took home movies and snapped pictures of me in my costumes. I loved my costumes and that we got to wear makeup and false eyelashes at the performances. I sensed my dad loved my dancing, so I worked hard to be even better. When I felt his approval and love, I wanted more. Dance brought me the attention and acknowledgment I craved from both my parents.

I still keep those toe shoes in my hope chest, and am still proud of my ugly feet. I tell people I earned them "when I was a dancer."

Both of my parents wanted us to have it better than they did. They worked for the American dream to give us everything they didn't have. Sound familiar? Yes, the parallel of my Walton family and my own is the foundation so much of my life is cemented on.


Several years of marriage later, they fulfilled their own dream of a home in the San Fernando Valley, with children to fill that home. First, my brothers arrived; a few years later, I was born on May 4, 1961.

After I was checked over and cleaned up, the nurse brought me to my mother and said, "Here's Mary."

"How did you know her name?"

"We didn't. We give all the newborns nursery names until the parents make their final decision. She looks like a Mary." So I guess it was meant to be.

They brought me home to meet my brothers, Michael and John. Michael was six years old, John three. When I was three, my sister, Elaine, was born, making me a middle child, just like Erin.

Raised on a farm, my father had learned construction, and he could build or repair just about anything. He designed and built for his bride and young children a dream house at the end of a cul-de-sac, within walking distance of our new church and school in Northridge, California. Near completion, there were still some finishing touches after we moved in.

They were laying the new floor in our foyer and I was in the kitchen with my mom. She told me, "Mary, now stay here and don't walk on the floor. No matter what you do, don't walk on the new floor." She carefully took me to the back of the house and put me down, only to turn around a few minutes later to find me in the kitchen again.

"Mary, how did you get in here?"

"Don't worry, Mommy," I said. "I didn't walk. I tippy-toed." Ah, always a literal thinker. My footprints were in that floor until it was remodeled years later.

Valley Girl

Northridge is a small community in the San Fernando Valley, about twenty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles. It's perhaps most famous for the 1994 earthquake, which was really centered in Reseda, but once named, always associated. I can relate to that.

So yes, I'm a born and raised "Valley Girl." In the 1960s and 1970s, Northridge was still filled with orange groves and empty fields, and we could ride our bikes through the parks and down the streets surrounded by the mountains. It was a great place to grow up. Our roller skates made their way around the school parking lot at the end of our street and kids roamed around the community.

There was a freedom and sense of safety for me in our little town. The Vietnam War was on the news, but it was on the other side of the world. I would run past the round television screen, unless one of my favorite shows—Sea Hunt reruns, Get Smart, Bewitched, Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, or Laugh-In—was on. The political unrest on the other coast in Washington D.C. never slowed me down, although I remember my father "discussing" the country's future with the neighbors.

Most of our neighbors went to our church, and the community was tight. We spent many family nights at home or eating out along the "main street," Reseda Boulevard, in family-owned shops and mom-and-pop restaurants. We'd ride our bikes to My Hero, a famous sub-sandwich shop, or Dad would take us to a family-style Italian dinner at Morigi's, or for a "with six, you get egg roll" Chinese dinner. We'd also go to San Fernando to have authentic Mexican food. It was there I learned not to trust your brothers and let them put the "it's not hot, Mary" hot sauce in your mouth.

My father made a lot of friends and contacts through his business. As I mentioned, he was a generous man, and I'm certain many of the meals we ate were trades for the work he did at his car repair shop. He once brought home half a cow. Mom said, "Larry, what are we gonna do with all this?" They bought a freezer for the garage and we had beef for dinner for what felt like years.

Our new house was next door to the Reynolds family—eleven kids, their parents, and Granny and Gramps. This was heaven for a kid, and a precursor for my future. For every McDonough kid, there were two Reynolds kids to play with. My Reynolds family member was Connie. I met her when I was three. We were the same age and in the same grade at Our Lady of Lourdes.

When the show started, I was already used to a large, extended family living under one roof. Mrs. Reynolds would watch us when our mother worked at the family business, and often took us on impromptu trips to the beach, which we loved. You've heard the expression "it takes a village to raise a child"—well, I learned about the "village" early on.

Early Theater

I had never really acted before, unless you count the plays I wrote and forced Connie, Claire, and Danny Reynolds to perform in our backyard.

These backyard theatrical productions always involved a Reynolds or two. Poor Danny had to play all the boy parts because we needed him, even though I suspect he would much rather have been playing with the older boys. But he was the youngest, so we dressed him up and told him where to stand.


Excerpted from LESSONS FROM THE MOUNTAIN by MARY McDONOUGH Copyright © 2011 by Mary McDonough and Beverly Nault. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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