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Moms. That’s what I’m best known for playing on TV.
Maybe you’ve seen me as beleaguered stay-at-home mom Debra Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond or in my current role as Frankie Heck, a Midwestern car saleswoman and mother of three, on The Middle.
In real life I’m a mom too, of four boys! I love my family and I’m grateful to be making my living as an actress—both are huge blessings in my life—but there was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d have either.
It was 1989 and I’d just moved to Los Angeles after a nine-year stretch of trying to make it as an actress in New York. I was 31 years old (that’s ancient in Hollywood) and was renting the cramped back bedroom of my cousin’s girlfriend’s mother’s house—yup, that’s how low I was on the totem pole. I had gotten engaged—my fiancé, David, was also an actor—and was just barely scraping by, auditioning for every bit part you can imagine.
Back in my hometown, Bay Village, Ohio, most of my friends were married, with families, and had homes and steady jobs. I longed for that. Still, I put acting first. It was what I’d always dreamed of doing, a life plan that was somehow meant for me. My dad, a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and my mom, a homemaker, instilled in my three sisters, my brother and me a strong sense of faith.
We went to church as a family every Sunday. We said grace before meals and read stories from our collection of books on the lives of the saints. God was in everything that we did and we soaked it in. Then, when I was 12, my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Losing her was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through, but at the same time it cemented my belief in everything I’d been taught. Especially that life is a journey, and it’s short, so we should live for God and do the best we can.
Now, though, eking out a living in Los Angeles, I was starting to doubt that. I mean, I was doing the best I could, and here I was still struggling after years of work. Where was my big break? And how would David and I ever support the family we’d dreamed of if I didn’t get a steady job?
One Sunday, a few weeks after I’d moved, I drove around the city and prayed to God (okay, more like argued) about how I felt. If this is what I’m supposed to be doing, why isn’t there a single door opening? Why, Lord?! What are we doing wrong here? There was no answer. No epiphany. Just silence.
Shortly afterward I heard about a mission trip to an orphanage in Mexico through the church we had started going to, First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. The kids at the orphanage didn’t have a lawn to play on, so volunteers were needed to go down there and lay some sod.
My parents had always taught us to help someone else whenever we were feeling sorry for ourselves…and this was definitely one of those times! I called David and told him about it. “I think this’ll be good for us,” I said. I had to admit, it would also be nice to have a few days when I didn’t have to worry about finding work.
David and I packed up a van full of church members and off we went. A bumpy three-hour ride later, we arrived at the Sparrows Gate Orphanage, a collection of humble stucco buildings run by a couple who introduced themselves as Dean and Alba Tinney. “Let’s get to work, guys!” they said nearly the second we got out of the van.
We were split into groups—one to help repair broken sewage lines and another to dig into the dry ground to prepare it for the sod. It was my first real exposure to hard physical labor and to Third World living. I didn’t speak Spanish and the kids didn’t speak English, so during breaks we played ball together and just plain ran around, laughing. At night, the volunteers slept in little bunkers on cots. There was total technology deprivation—no TV or radio or phone.