I think I’m not the only person that cries every time I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The movie pulls our heart strings because we can all relate to George Bailey: man has dreams to see the world and do big things, but is instead given a meager life of service. Many reduce the film’s central message to a dichotomy of selfishness vs. selflessness, for good or ill. However, it’s not the greedy capitalists or the needs of others that George is struggling against, but something much deeper. Ultimately, George is wrestling with his own destiny, and often in the midst of life’s frustrations, so are we.
I try to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas, and after watching it this year with a friend, we noticed something new. It wasn’t the dramatic change in the protagonist, but the steadiness of his wife: the ever faithful Mary Hatch Bailey.
Now we’ve all been taught—by middle school English teachers and film critics alike—that morally perfect characters are flat and boring. If this is true, then Mary Bailey should hold no sway over our hearts. Throughout the plot, Mary is seemingly flawless; about the only crime she could be said to have committed is breaking a perfectly good record album.
And yet, while it’s George we relate to, we can’t help but find Mary incredibly desirable. She stands iconicly as the devoted wife, and the movie is jam packed with these shining moments of Mary.
Take, for example, their wedding day.
George and Mary scraped together a honeymoon fund of $2,000 to wine and dine and see the world. But, when there is a run on the banks, the beloved Building & Loan is out of money, and George must attempt to dissuade a mob of people thirsty for cash. Beholding such a moment, it would have been perfectly natural for Mary—who insisted that George never get out of the car—to become very upset for the ruined day.
But when faced with crisis, Mary holds up their wad of cash (equivalent to about $35,000 in 2018) and yells to the crowd, “How much do you need?” She doesn’t even blink at the opportunity to rescue her husband and community. Later that night, Mary fixes up the old, rickety Granville house for the honeymoon they will never have.
As the film progresses, George’s ungratefulness only becomes more sharply contrasted with Mary’s devoted-ness. When George reels over the temptation of a lucrative job under Mr. Potter, Mary gleefully announces that she is carrying their first child. George spends his days toiling at Building & Loan and disparaging his beat-up car, but Mary faithfully fixes up the house and raises their children. While George contemplates suicide over the misplaced $8,000, Mary goes on the move and resourcefully mobilizes the town to come to their aid.
Over and over, the film belabors the point that Mary is the better person. Through poverty and obscurity, Mary remains contented, apparently because she got her life wish of marrying George Bailey, despite his feverish restlessness.
The central plot and driving force behind “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t the virtuosity of Mary, but George’s personal transformation. Yet, it is Mary’s incredible devotion that provides the foil for us to see and appreciate that change within George. And insofar as George is a stand-in for ourselves, Mary’s impossible example exists to confront our own ingratitude.
In talking about “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my friend, she pointed out that all of Mary’s actions stemmed from a deep love for George. She lived to please George, but not for her own validation. Instead, she simply did what that love directed her to do. As Mary so prophetically declared as a little girl “George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die.”
As you enter the Christmas week, may you appreciate the film’s message, expressed in its title: No matter what cards life has dealt you or how dark things seem, there is something wonderful in this life that you must hold gratefully.
I have read many, many, despondent writers, poets, etc. Persons who, now in adulthood, have come through some depressing, harrowing, childhood situations. On occasion, I have run across documentaries, news item, etc. About pre-teen, teen, and young adult suicide. All due to having lived at the violent hands and words of parents that outwardly appeared ‘normal.’ That inwardly, were the devil’s hand puppets.
Back in or around the early 80’s: Our house had burned down. Down to the ground. Standing stoic were the scant charred…2 by 4’s, abandoned ashen table ware and counters. For all intensive purposes, my fifteen year old eyes witnessed nothing but a shell.
As I have said before, some memories blare at me such like the horn of an irritated driver. Loud, clear, vibrant. Other memories, due to my need to persevere, are faded and clouded. Such like a watercolor painting you once adored but can, now, barely remember.
My siblings had long since been kicked out of the house. It seemed to be a rite of passage.
‘You’re eighteen. You did something to piss me off. You are now no longer allowed on the land of misfits.”
Generally speaking, both, Bud and Sybil, were conversatinally gone…Way before being physically excommunicated. My sister enjoyed the company of questionable boyfriends. A habit I firmly believe was thrown upon her by my father’s physical abuse. And, my mother’s lack of emotional attachment.
My brother had his friends. He partied. He defied. He had tired of protecting his mother. And, at one point or another, during a physical altercation with my father. There had been threats of guns and severe violence. Best guess would be that was the point of no return.
After our house became a photo source for neighbors. After the smoke cleared, clothes of creosote were tossed and generations of knick knacks were tossed into the trash. After the chaos of destruction became nothing more than local gossip…I was assigned the task of cleaning pennies, dimes, nickels and quarters.
In other words, our small but precious gallon jug of empty Riunite…that had been filled to the max with change; had succumbed to being spare change among broken glass. And, it had been my assigned duty to clean each and every piece of current currency…metal.
“Scrub it clean! Here’s the toothbrush! Now get at it.”
Had been the order barked out by both my father and my mother.
Sitting there between the lilac bushes and partially singed grass, a stool, a toothbrush and pounds of spare change… lay an endless fall.
With September sun beaming down. I can still recall how sweat would douse the corners of my mouth and then, splash upon the tainted dime or penny.
My depression ran deep. And, I had been fully aware of it. Not knowing at the time about my father’s thirst for killing or psychosis. Not being fully aware of the how and why of my mother’s terminal sadness. Not being aware of much. I knew that life in the Bowley household was not like the pretty white houses with laughter…that dotted the rest of the street.
My brother had since joined the Air Force. And, my sister had married. Still there had not been much connection between us. It seems to me, that had been a scenario my parent had derived. Either consciously or not.
Indeed, I had been my father’s favorite. Which meant sports, sports and more sports. Which meant teaching CCD, being active in youth group and singing in the church folk group. Which meant I received far more than my share of…
“You can do better than that! Are you stupid? I don’t give a flying fuck what other parents do!”
Either way, I was a lost budding young adult woman. In a lost land. With a bit of house insurance money left over. My mother begged my father to take her to visit her favorite child, Bud! Bud, my half-brother, had begun the pursuit of his second marriage in two years. He had, also been affluent in the use of cocaine. He had joined the Air-force!
Bud had been stationed in Florida. And, my parents believed they deserved a break. A break from the hustle and bustle of rebuilding life after a house fire.
Therefore, it was only reasonable that I should remain behind. Only reasonable to think my best friend, Michael and, most importantly, his mother, would take me in.
This is where Black Beauties, booze, bad behavior and LSD come into play. I had indulged at a very young age in Yukon Jack. But my current course of plaid catholic school skirts, smoke and dope and sex…was in over drive.
Mimi, Michael’s mother, had seen this. She had known what was about to come. My intention had been death by over indulgence. Dropping blotter, smoking weed, playing both sides of addiction against each other.
Mimi in her own hippie way, felt the only need for a deep, profound, change in my behavior…Would be therapy!
It had worked. I met a wonderful woman named, Eileen. We met once a week on the second floor above S n W sports. Her office was filled with Buddha, warm thoughts and reflective flowing waters from an over sized fish tank.
My renewal was instant. The remorse, guilt and shame that was felt became something talked about in open conversation. I had not started the house fire. But my intention on that fateful weekend…was to stay home.
Could I have stopped it?
A kind woman in pastel flowing skirt…told me…
My relief and new-found comfort within my own skin…Quickly dissipated. For as soon as my parents returned. And, even with Mimi’s glowing recommendation. It was apparent that I would not longer be allowed to see Eileen.
My father ranted and raved over and over again…
“No daughter of mine is going to see a shrink…”
And, my mother…
“You heard your father!”
Funny, I was conceived in the tunnels underneath the New Hampshire State Hospital. Or, that my father was once deemed insane. And, my mother a manic-depressive with suicidal tendencies. Yet, snipping possible self harm in the buttocks, while I was still young. Seemed out of the question.
Looking back on my vivid with gray strands of depression, as a child and teen. I think how fortunate I am to have survived. To be able to function.
Course, there is much more to my parent’s love story. Much more to the dysfunction. Starting a few years before my birth and flourishing years after…My disowning the ‘family.’
I had begun to wonder. What would it be like to have been born into a different family? Would the rules have changed? Would I have still become an addict? For that matter, would I have lived long enough to make to recovery?
So many questions…So little time.
It is not shame that has brought me into this need. This longing to write out exactly what happened in my family’s little cycle/circle of abuse. I caressed that wound years ago. Adamant that more needed to be done. Actions needed to be taken against my abusive father and emotionally distant mother.
I stewed over the pains and aches…like leftover beef on a hot outdoor grill in the New Hampshire summer humidity.
Yet, something began to turn inside of me. There had been less pointing of the finger at those I felt were culprits in the boiling blood of my family legacy. And, more of a need to understand my own paranoia, anger, compulsiveness and…unfortunately, physical ailments.
As I write this, there have been several orthopedic surgeries within the last five years. More than ten…Less than fifteen. I say, unfortunately about my disability…for I will never know for sure. Never to know the exact background to illnesses that have taken the lives of relatives from the past. For I do not know the exact reason for the ills that have befallen many on my family tree.
I do know this for certain…
My grandfather, who had been born in Worcester, Ma., was unpleasant. As unpleasant and outwardly angry, as most any man, I have ever met. His scowl and belittling undertone statements struck fear in any person…unlucky enough to have met him.
He had been a Massachusetts State Policeman. He had been a chain smoking, heavy drinking, Irishman, who took no prisoners…Took no prisoners when he worked. Or, when he came home.
Somehow through the course of the 1960’s Joseph developed a knack for photography. One thing, led to another…And, not only did he carry a gun to the scene of a crime. He also took pictures of all the deadly, beyond a good imagination, crash sites. He became the go to man when it came to homicide, suicide, and accidental death, by motor vehicle.
I still remember vividly the many occasions in Waltham, on Cedar Circle. The obligating ride down route 128 to an obligating visit…to pictures strewn about the dinning room table. Vivid black and whites of the latest victim of death upon the Massachusetts’s turnpike.
If anything…my grandfather’s glorious response to how…beautiful and engaging the photos were. Only truly depicts his personality. The idea that someone could get so much satisfaction out of another’s untimely demise…stirs the depth’s of my soul.
Guns, guts and glory!
To this stoic man whose employment photo in full uniform, reminded me of one of Hitler’s henchmen: My grandmother was a dumb Pollock and my mother a, stupid cow.
So often my grandmother found herself the butt-end of polish jokes. And, my mother, forever, reminded of a youth speckled in bullying. Bullying by her own flesh and blood. Over her size and weight.
There had been the slaps, the belt, the insults, the pushing and shoving…by my grandfather towards both Grams and my mother.
I recall riding home from my great aunt’s funeral. Passing the homeless, the burned out buildings, the graffiti and the desolation of streets in Waltham. I never cared for the city in which my mother grew up. Having been born in Concord, New Hampshire. The definition of city envisioned itself quite different. Concord being the bright sunlight of day. Waltham being the wet and dripping stonewalls of night.
Riding home in the backseat with my mother. I spent my time in a blank state of mind. Avoiding eye contact with those on the street. Pretending to enjoy the gray of the city. Passing a rundown watch factory, and just over a set of forlorn rail-tracks…we came up on a bridge.
My mother said something to me…Something, I will always remember. She also spoke in a familiar tone. A tone that I can only associate with childhood. Very, very, hush, hush. As though, her words had no air.
“This is the bridge where I almost jumped!”
For a moment. I thought maybe she had misspoken. But it took little time for me to realize who was speaking to me. My mother had a vast history of suicidal thoughts, tendencies and suicide attempts.
Quickly and with what meek energy she could summon…
She spoke a few words more.
“Your grandfather sent me out to get him cigarettes in the middle of a snowstorm. He had a few patrolmen over, he’d been drinking and…he didn’t feel like getting out of the Lazy Boy.
He didn’t give me enough money. I couldn’t get the cigarettes. When I got home, he asked me…
‘What good are you? You’re as stupid as your Pollock mother!’
With more money in hand and crying. I slipped on my goulashes and left. He had such a way of making me feel so small.”
My mother had a unique way of starting a feel good family story…and, just ending it. Just like that. As if the story didn’t begin in the first place.
The most of I got out of her? Had been a simple, non-comedic, punchline…
“Anyway, I felt so horrible. I stopped at that bridge. Climbed on the bricks. Slipped and fell, back onto the sidewalk. A patrol-car passed by. Recognized me as, Joe’s kid. And, gave me a ride back home. Completely oblivious to what I had just tried to do.”
Grabbing my mother’s hand gently. I looked ahead to my grandmother, who was still alive at the time. And, my father, who had been complaining about my grandmother’s use of the car window.
That is all I have to say, at least for now, about dear old granddad. A man we the children called, affectionately, Joe Poe.
Whoops! Untrue. I will introduce the Matriarch of the family, by giving one more nod to Joe Poe.
In my mid twenties, I had come out. Not full blown. I’m not a full blown…anything. I just am not a wearing the rainbow flag like a poncho, leather wallet with chains, lesbian. Do not get me wrong. That image works for many. It just has never been my style. I have done the marches, the sit-ins, the demonstrations and the volunteering. Yet, for many reasons, I remain private but open.
My grandfather disowned me…when I had been 24 or 25. Nothing spectacular. I had moved to North Carolina. My grandfather was beginning to slowly die, grow blind and talk gibberish. Though, to me he had been sick all his life.
I sent him audiotapes of Sherlock Holmes detective series and a sundry of other murder mysteries, on tape. They were all sent back. Very little communication occurred. And, in the same hushed voice my mother always used. I had been told…Joe Poe was not pleased with my sexual orientation.
Five years later, upon my return to New Hampshire. My grandfather died not two months into my return.
With some coaxing by my partner and my mother, I renewed a relationship with the Matriarch.
Ruth Quinn had once been…Ruth Stukonis! The Pollock joke is on you Joe Poe. It turns out my grandmother is actually, Lithuanian and Russian!
Raised by bad ass nuns and foster families from hell, Ruth came of age before and during the depression…The depression in Boston being raised by an already uncaring and violent family, could not have been easy.
It could be said, that my grandmother had the mouth of a truck driver, the drinking ability of a sailor and the prowl-ness of a well handled knife.
She worked in factories, restaurants, college cafeterias, etc., only to come home to a belt wielding, gun totting hard-ass, husband. But she was married! And, for a woman of the 1940’s, catholic and fat (her words, not mine) that was everything.
There are times where I know I did not love her. Yet, I respected her. My grandmother and mother both dealt with severe weight issues. All their lives. Even when they were below a good weight. In their minds, and due directly to my grandfather’s belittling, both were forever on a diet.
Ruth told you, daily: How stupid you were, how fat you were, how you could do better, what was wrong with your wardrobe and many other things she deemed your personal flaws. Her abuse came verbally.
Emotionally distant, not one for the friendly feeling of a hug, and/or telling you she ‘loved you.’…That had been my grandmother. Along with telling you dirty jokes, pointing out your latest cold sore and listening to Jimmy Buffet’s
Let’s Get Drunk and Screw
Indeed, she accused me of stealing, lying, drinking and drugging, on more occasions than I can count. And, much to her now deceased… chagrin, she typically pronounced these indiscretions when I hadn’t done anything.
Do not get me wrong. I did steal, lie, do drugs and drink. Just now when she wished upon me the Scarlet A.
I actually tried to make an amends to her, early in sobriety: For taking a paperboy’s tip, from decades before. She refused to believe me.
Looking back, I know in the deep part of my heart. The part only my wife and animals are allowed to see. I know…Ruth and Joe Poe did not care for me. I had been the product of my father’s blood. And, my father was a heathen, a heretic, a non-catholic.
My siblings did not share my father’s heritage. And, though they had been prime examples of abuse, from my mother’s first marriage…They still did not belong to ‘that man.’ That man who had been my father.