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What I Already Miss About 'Downton Abbey'

The PBS mega-hit is more than great entertainment — it’s full of life lessons

By Mary Dell Harrington | February 18, 2013
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley
Courtesy of © Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

I am among the millions of Downton Abbey fans now officially in mourning. My despondency kicked in the moment my husband switched off the television after last night’s season three finale. Starting with the first episode two years ago, the show pulled us in, and we’ve been loyal viewers ever since.

We’ve savored every televised minute of Lord and Lady Grantham navigating their way through the choppy seas of midlife marriage. We've also celebrated weddings and new babies and endured untimely deaths.
 
We now have 11 long months until season four. Beginning next week, I will have quieter Sunday evenings, allowing time for more reading or, perhaps, for preparing more elaborate dinners than the quickie one-pot meals I’ve been throwing together.

But while I chop salad greens and marinade chicken, my thoughts will likely wander to Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. If only they could help me whip up a tasty Beef Wellington!

(MORE: 'Downton Abbey': Can't Anyone Keep a Secret?)
 
As I reminisce, I already know what I will miss the most is not simply the extraordinary quality of entertainment but also the life lessons Downton Abbey offers.
 
9 Best Things About Downton Abbey
 
1. The over-the-top grandeur Each week, my husband and I would settle into our customary chairs in the family room, a fire crackling in the fireplace, and my lust for all things Downton would well up inside me. I’d marvel at its sweeping staircases, vaulted ceilings and every fine Persian rug.
 
As the Grantham clan would sit down to dinner, I’d study the placement of every sterling silver fork, knife and spoon. My family will never live with such grandeur, but each Sunday night has offered me a chance to dream and to imagine ratcheting my own casual meals up a notch (or 12).
 
2. The costumes From wedding gowns to daytime “frocks” to sleeping attire, the luxurious fabrics and elaborate accessories of the ladies’ costumes never fail to send me back in time to the days when I played dress-up with my grandmother’s finery. Recalling my favorite pieces in her jewelry box, I long to surround myself with the kind of craftsmanship of those vintage necklaces and pins made them true treasures.

3. Family values The characters’ interactions present clear examples of parenting dos and don’ts. At the heart of every episode are Robert and Cora Grantham, who without a shred of doubt in their minds, continue to parent their grown daughters, constantly aware of their responsibilities as role models.
 
During a recent episode, I was struck by how confidently Cora chose compassion over convention at a ladies luncheon that her husband considered scandalous because in attendance was Ethel, a recently hired cook generally regarded as a “fallen woman” (she’s a reformed prostitute). Poor Ethel stood horrified as Robert stormed into the dining room and demanded his family’s immediate departure. But Cora stood her ground, demonstrating to her grown daughters that being kind and empathetic toward the less fortunate was a value she held dear.

4. Relatable character Robert tangles with his daughters during the turbulence of the 1920s, which always reminds me of my own dad, whose Eisenhower-era sensibilities were challenged by his daughters during the equally turbulent 1970s. My father used to believe that a woman’s place was in the home, but over time, he evolved to become a champion of women’s rights. I fear that Robert will be slower to accept his daughter Edith’s plans to pursue a career in journalism, but I am hoping for a change of heart next season.
 
Similarly, Tom and Matthew, Robert’s sons-in-law, challenge him on a daily basis, most commonly over breakfast. This season, they argued but also found common ground, most noticeably on the cricket field. These three strong-willed men are mastering the steps of their own in-law dance. I’ve been taking mental notes that I hope will one day serve me well when I become a mother-in-law

5. A weekly mini-lesson in British history The show has covered World War I, the influenza epidemic, the decline of the landed aristocracy and the struggle for an Irish Free State. On numerous occasions, my piqued curiosity has sent me to the computer for background information so I can better appreciate the story lines. I’ve also taken to wandering the nonfiction section of our local bookstore, hoping to find just the right 20th-century British history book to fill in my considerable knowledge gaps.

6. Maggie Smith As the strongest character and best actress in the cast, Dame Maggie dominates all of her scenes, proving that real talent doesn’t diminish with age. Whether she’s starring in blockbusters like the Harry Potter franchise or last year’s sleeper hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Smith becomes a greater force with each new challenge. As someone whose career began more than 50 years ago and whose relevance only increases with time, she is a true role model for both genders and all ages.

7. A portrait of a strong marriage Cora and Robert, in their midlife marriage, showed their (renewed) devotion to each other despite family tragedy and financial turmoil. The scene in which they embrace after learning that their daughter Sybil’s death could not have been prevented, revealed the depth of their commitment. Their deep bond as a married couple helped them find the strength to carry on, even after experiencing life’s ultimate tragedy. Their courage is inspirational.

8. Isis I silently cheer every time that blond Labrador makes an appearance. Like Robert’s most loyal companion who trots beside him in the opening credits, our two Labs keep us company and fill the void our grown children have left. Back home after our daily walks, they stay glued to our sides, playful when we’re in the mood, but also soulful buddies consoling us when we’re a little down. I suspect it is the same with Robert and Isis.

9. The opportunity to bond with my husband Finding a show that he and I enjoy equally has been the greatest gift of all. We watched every episode together, even if one of us had to wait until the other was available. In our almost empty nest, Downton Abbey turned Sunday evening into a new date night. Sitting in our family room we were reminded that where we went wasn’t nearly so important as what we shared.
 
Mary Dell Harrington is the the co-founder, along with Lisa Endlich Heffernan, of Grown and Flown: Parenting From the Empty Nest  

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