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Playdates with Punky

Jenny Feldon

Writer (and former Project Pregnancy blogger) Jenny Feldon used to just admire Punky Brewster on her living room TV set. Now she admires the woman behind Punky -- actress, mom, businesswoman, and now author of new book Happy Chaos, Soleil Moon Frye -- in real life on playdates. Here, Jenny dishes on what's it's like to become friends with a former idol.

When I was a kid, my best friend was Punky Brewster.

OK, not really. When the TV show first aired in 1984, I was a second grader growing up in the Boston suburbs. “Punky” was a character, played in real life by child actress Soleil Moon Frye, who lived a charmed, hippie-style life outside of Hollywood. But in my imagination, she and I were thick as thieves. I’d curl up on our old brown couch after school with a bowl of popcorn and watch Punky’s adventures, pretending I was right there in the treehouse with her, Brandon and Cherie.

As a child, I was nothing like Punky. To begin with, I came from a “regular” family with two parents, two brothers and a turtle. No dog, curmudgeonly caregiver, or latchkey for me. But the differences didn’t stop there. Punky was sunny and spirited. I was shy and hesitant. People were always telling me to smile.

But I wanted to be like Punky. I wore my hair in pigtails—complete with giant plastic ponytail holders—until fifth grade. I wrapped a bandana around my knee. I begged my mom to buy me two different pairs of high tops so I could wear one of each. She said no (but did break down and let me have the cherry red ones I wanted so badly.) When Punky was on TV, I studied how she moved, how she laughed, how she made everyone love her but stayed true to herself. Punky was my idol.

As role models go, she was a pretty good one. 80s TV may seem cheesy when we look back at the reruns on YouTube, but the messages were pure and clear. I carried the lessons I learned from Punky Brewster with me long after I outgrew the pigtails and the high tops.  Love big, dream bigger. Believe in yourself. Create your own family.

Exactly 25 years later, I was sitting on the floor of a new Mommy and Me class with my daughter E, who was just over a year. As she toddled toward the ball pit, another little girl came hurtling through and jumped in with her.

“Jagger Joseph Blue, slow down before you hurt yourself!” A flustered-sounding mom hurried after her, shooting me an apologetic look over her shoulder. A tiny, child-like mom wearing baggy boyfriend jeans, a white hoodie, and black Converse sneakers. With her hair in pigtails.

A mom that was Punky Brewster. O.M.G.

Soleil Moon Frye—all grown up, yet looking inexplicably exactly the same—was now a mom herself. And not the impossibly put-together, type-A Hollywood mom you might expect her to be. Nope, she was the kind of mom Punky Brewster would have grown up to be: a little disheveled (juggling a giant Starbucks and overflowing diaper bag), a little uncertain, and more than a little bit adorable.

The 7-year-old in me wanted to jump up, squeal, and race over to hug my long-lost best friend. The star-struck fan wanted to ask her to autograph my own cup of Starbucks. But the new mom in me—the one still desperately seeking a tribe of like-minded mommy friends—was just thrilled to have another mom to hang with while our toddlers tore up the ball pit. Even if I had to clap a hand over my mouth to keep from exclaiming “Holy Macanoli!”

E and Jagger, born just weeks apart, turned out to be the kind of yin and yang pals I’d imagined Punky and I would be. E, like her mama, was a little shy and reluctant to try new things. Jagger was the peaceful explorer, fearless and engaging. The two of them became fast friends.

The more time we spent with Soleil and Jagger (and soon Jagger’s older sister Poet, who became the perfect combination of ringleader and protector when the three girls played together) the more Soleil and I got to know each other outside the role of “mommy.” Our 80s childhoods couldn’t have been more different… and yet, so very similar.

We hung the same Tiger Beat pages covered with our favorite teen idols all over our bedroom walls. Of course, she was busy riding around on the back of a motorcycle with Mark Wahlberg while I was mooning over the Calvin Klein ad I’d snatched from a magazine in the waiting room of my dad’s office. But I’d never met anyone else who obsessed over The Lost Boys, or who knew every single word to “Cool Rider.” And now she, like me, was struggling to learn how to be a great mom while still chasing her own dreams. When our first official playdate at Punky’s house ended in all five of us doing karaoke to the Grease 2 soundtrack using hairbrushes for microphones, I knew I’d found a friend for life.

So what’s it like being friends with Punky Brewster? Reading her new memoir Happy Chaos will give you a pretty good idea—her writer’s voice is as authentic as they come. But here a few things Soleil didn’t mention in the book—and left to me to share with the world.

She bakes amazing cookies. Yes, sometimes she misplaces the chocolate chips and leads everyone in a hunt to find them before the baking party can resume. Yes, Soleil’s kitchen (and her living room, and the kids, and the dog) end up covered in flour, sprinkles and powdered sugar. And no, the cookies don’t always resemble the picture-perfect ones in the cookbooks she uses. But they always taste fantastic.

She’s a great shoulder to cry on. Last year, when I was pregnant with Baby N and obsessing over whether my heart would grow to love a #2, and whether my #1 would ever forgive me for adding another baby to the mix, Soleil was never too busy (and she’ s one seriously busy person) to lend an ear, give me a hug, and offer advice she’d cultivated from her own experiences and mentors.

She turns everyday moments into adventures. She makes cardboard boxes into the It’s a Small World ride from Disneyland (and sings the song at the top of her lungs.) She turns coloring books and crayons into opportunities for meditation. She transforms the simplest drugstore errand into a super-secret mission. E loves joining in on Soleil’s adventures; I’ve learned a lot about how to make the ordinary extraordinary by following her lead.

Over the last two years, I’ve watched Soleil juggle motherhood with her other roles: actor, screenwriter, director, eco-business owner, social media queen, pop culture icon, and now author. There are few people who handle the work/life balance better—who manage to be fully present in so many different areas. Soleil’s kids aren’t latchkey kids. They aren’t being raised by nannies. Like Soleil herself, they are incredibly grounded, secure, and normal. Even though their childhoods, like their famous mama’s, are far from ordinary.

Happy Chaos tells the story of Soleil’s journey from Punky to parenting (and all of her incredible adventures in between.) The lessons I’ve watched her teach her daughters are the same lessons her iconic character taught legions of adoring fans more than two decades ago.  Love big and dream bigger. Believe in yourself. Create your own family.

When I finished Happy Chaos (and wiped away a few tears of nostalgia and laughter), I flipped through the acknowledgments section. As a writer, I’m always fascinated to learn who my fellow scribes draw their inspiration from. And to my surprise, I saw my own name there.  Just after Francis Ford Coppola and Muhammed Ali; just before Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Bubbles the chimp. It was one of the proudest—and most surreal—moments in my life. In her journey through life, Soleil truly does make her own family out of people she collects along the way. I’m truly honored to be an honorary member of her wacky, creative, inspiring tribe.

Most of the time, Soleil is just Soleil. Our families spend time together doing normal things—going to the beach, taking the kids out for ice cream, walking through farmer’s market. But there’s a lot of Punky in Soleil (or a lot of Soleil in Punky. It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg.) Every once in a while, when she turns to me and smiles, she’s 100% Punky. Just for a second.

And just for a second, I’m 7 years old all over again. Turning cartwheels in my cherry red high tops. Loving big and dreaming bigger. Just like Punky taught me.