Over at The VideoReport, fearless leader Bill Duggan has an announcement to make, former VideoReporters of years past have some memories to share, your tireless editor keeps on highlighting new releases, and I have one last recommendation for a free rental that will break your heart, and it should.
I’ve been trying to count up how many friendships, marriages, partnerships, and careers Videoport nurtured in that cool, well-stocked cellar, and I can’t even begin to tally ’em all up. Thank you, Videoport, for everything — for even more than the movies, when just the movies would have been gift enough.
When I was a little girl and we went out for dinner, Dad would always give me the cherry from his whiskey sour. When I was ~35, if he ordered a whiskey sour, he would still offer me the cherry.
Dad was always proud of me, and always for unexpected reasons. When I was a weird little kid ordering snails or frog’s legs in restaurants, he was proud of me for that.
When some dear friends offered me their summer house furniture for my new apartment, Dad and I went over to collect it. The gentlemen neighbors saw me getting ready to heft the clunky table and blurted “Oh, no, Miss Emily, it’s awful heavy, you should let your father do that!” My rail-skinny Dad and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Dad assured them “She’s strong!” He was proud of that, too.
When I’d visit them, Dad used to slip me a little cash money once in a while. Usually it was a $20, sometimes it was a $50, once or twice a $100. Sometimes specify what I could use it for: he’d say “for your cab fare” or “to tip the driver” or “for dinner on the road” or—my favorite—”spend it on something silly.”
Dad used to cook dinner every Sunday while Mom would take a nap or read a book in their bedroom, several stories up. When we moved to a one-story house, where she could hear his incessant swearing as he tried to heat canned foods without incident, Mom decided Sundays weren’t so relaxing anymore. (We eventually moved to Sundays being “fend-for-yourself” nights, but I’ll never forget Dad calling out “EVERYTHING I TOUCH TURNS TO SHIT!” while trying to heat up canned chili.)
Dad made up little songs and jingles every single day, and especially when he was driving.
Dad once asked my (middle) sister quite seriously whether she saw any signs of creeping dementia in him. “Do you think I’m losing it?” She responded “Dad, how would we know?” He found this answer reassuring.
When there was only one grandchild in the the family, Dad christened her “The Smart Baby.” I finally pointed out that he’d better stop calling her The Smart Baby before someone else had a kid, because it wouldn’t do to have two grandchildren known as The Smart Baby and The Other Baby. He was receptive to this logic.
Dad loved Egg McMuffins. Loved them. But only in theory. In practice, he was almost always disappointed by them. But he kept making special trips to the drive-thru, so strong was his faith. I have a great Dad-in-hospice story to tell about an egg sandwich, but I can’t bear to cry right now, so it will have to wait.
Dad, who spent the last decade of his life hampered by CPOD, loved that Mom kept traveling even though he couldn’t. He would promise her he’d be fiiiiiiiiiine, just go! And almost always, he’d call me in the first 24 hours after she left to help him with some seemingly small task he just couldn’t manage. The one that stands out in my mind is the time she left for the airport and maybe three hours later he called to ask me to come over and change his sheets: he’d celebrated his solo lifestyle by going to bed to watch TV and bringing A WHOLE GLASS OF ORANGE JUICE, and then upended the entire glass into the bed without even taking a sip.
About a month before he died, during a long cold rainy stretch when I was spending a lot of time commuting between his home and mine, Dad left me a voicemail on my old machine telling me he “just called to check in, and to tell you we love you. I keep thinking of you at the bus stop. Keep dry in the rain… and out of the rain.” I kept that message for months. When I moved and had to unplug the machine, the message erased, which is just as well. I still think about it a lot.
The Dad-est thing that my Dad ever did, he didn’t even do. I kept a secret from him so his last days wouldn’t be filled with a terrible anxiety… the anxiety about the mail getting slightly damp.
There are a lot of things true love is, and here are just two of them:
True love is sending your exhausted husband home from the hospital overnight because there’s no sense in both of you going without sleep, and never regretting it during the long, lonely, sleepless night.
And true love is sitting in that rumpled hospital bed in the faint light of morning, hours before he could possibly be planning to return, hearing distant footsteps two corridors away, and knowing those are his footsteps, coming straight to your room.
“Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.”
The family was gathering for Thanksgiving, oh so many years ago, when my beloved elderly aunt called from Florida. Her long-planned flight to join us was cancelled in deference to a storm and she didn’t see the sense in trying to reschedule; she’d stay safely home raise a glass to us on the day.
My little niece L. burst out “But what about her turkey?” She didn’t mean a plate overflowing with meat and gravy and stuffing. She meant a piece of paper on which L. had traced out her hand, then lavishly illustrated it in marker, adding feet and feathers and a landscape of spiky green grass and, incongruously, a wide-brimmed cockel hat with shiny buckle jauntily posed on the turkey’s head. She’d drawn one for each of the diners expected on Thursday and written their names on each picture.
“We’ll mail it to her,” the grown-ups assured her. And on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my father (L.’s grandfather) and I went out to do a last errand and took L. with us. We stopped at a mailbox and held L.’s hand as she strained up to drop the stamped envelope into the box.
“Aunt P. will love getting this, L.,” I murmured.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. It was sweet of you to draw it for her, and to send it to her. It will be such a good surprise!”
“Oh, yeah! Imagine her opening her mailbox to find that envelope in it, and opening it to see your picture! She’ll be so touched you thought of her.”
L. screwed up her face in serious thought, picturing Aunt P. at some imagined mailbox. Then her eyes lit up. “Will she CRY?!?”
Over smothered laughter (and not-so-smothered laughter from my father, ahead of us), I said “… I think she might, a little bit.”
I’ve been telling this story, now and again, for a dozen years – because L.’s question gets to the heart of what we are often asking ourselves about gestures of kindness and consideration. Is this a big gesture? Is this a small gesture? Will it make a mark in the heart of the beloved? How can we know what word or gesture makes a difference until it does – or it doesn’t?
Aunt P. is gone. L. is a high-spirited, talented young woman at a college halfway across the country from her family. And I am a writer who just finished a film essay about Mother’s Day – a film essay that made me tear up a bit when I wrote it, and again when I proof-read it.
And I understand L.’s question better than ever. Because when I wiped away the trickle of tears, I thought with great satisfaction “Will this make them CRY?” and “Yeah, I think it will.”
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place
and every day was exactly the same,
and nothing that you did mattered?”
– Phil Connors, Groundhog Day
Days after E. died, I moved into a new apartment, one I’d been waiting for for months. It was a place he’d never seen, the top floor of an 18th-century warehouse with vaulted ceilings and only a handful of windows punched through the brick walls. On the ground floor was the shop where I’d worked for several years; some days, I only had to leave the building for the seven steps from my front door to the shop’s front door.
After my beloved friends helped me move, I fed them, and then they left. I was alone in a new apartment. It was full of boxes and clutter and furniture all at off angles, waiting for me to figure out where the couch should go, which tables went where and which lamps went on them, where art should hang on the wall.
I spent a long time in stasis in that new, dark apartment with all my possessions around me, waiting for me to take a deep breath, embrace my life again, and start living it.
It took a while.
One thing I did set up right away: my VCR. (That alone should tell you how long ago this was, how long ago he died, how young I was, how lost in this big world I felt.) Down the street was a great locally-owned video store with a huge selection and a proprietor I was knew well, even worked for from time to time, but some of those days – most of those first days – just getting to work and living through that day was all I could manage. Dragging myself a block to rent a movie was impossible.
I had a small collection of tapes to play, and the one I turned to over and over was Groundhog Day. Day after day, hour after hour, I’d watch Phil Connors live out the same day, over and over, hour by hour. Sometimes I’d stop the film in the first act, rewind it, and start it again. Sometimes I’d watch half of it, rewind it, and start it again. Sometimes I’d watch to the last few minutes, just before the end, rewind it, and start it again.
Sometimes I’d watch just the end, the last perfect day when Phil saved all those lives, averted all those accidents, fostered all those dreams, then rewind just that sequence, and start it again.
It turns out that Groundhog Day, with its peculiar pattern of repetitions and differences, is weirdly well-suited to this fragmented repeated viewing, and also weirdly ill-suited to it. The film’s chronology began to blur for me. Even when I watched it as intended, from beginning to end, I found I couldn’t remember what happened when, what had already happened, what might happen next.
To have something so familiar and comforting become suddenly unpredictable, confusing, even disruptive – that was just the natural result of my frantic, repeated viewings, of treating a piece of film as a pacifier, but it felt like a metaphor.
Not just that: it felt like an eerily apt metaphor. E. and I had a rocky relationship, but an unquestioned one. We’d known since high school that we would be there for each other, whatever we were to each other, for the rest of our lives. We just didn’t expect “the rest of our lives” to be so short for one of us, and so mismatched.
And now I was floating, flailing, untethered. Without him. A fundamental part of my life, someone I loved as wholly as I loved myself, was simply… gone. Everything I’d known about life as an adult was suddenly uncertain. For a few months, I was incapable of surprise, just a numb mixture of confusion and acceptance.
I was sad and small and lost, and I became careless of my own life and safety in a way that, when I finally noticed it and sternly set myself straight, scared me to my bones.
I won’t say that Groundhog Day saved my life. But it was a companion to me in a time when I needed one, and watching it and laughing and crying day after day, night after night, felt very much like holding hands and swapping jokes with the person I missed most in the the world, and whom I would never see again.
Rest in peace, Harold Ramis. I wish I’d thought to thank you when you were alive, in any of the long, happy years since the dark hours and weeks I’m describing here. I thank you now with all my heart.
The #1 piece of advice I give to nieces & nephews: HEY KIDS, only date people who like you and whom you like, who are nice to you and to whom you can be nice.
You’d think it would be obvious, but it really, really isn’t, especially when you’re young. To young people schooled in the brand of romance sold in songs and movies, drama and acrimony can seem like the inevitable companion to romance. Drama and acrimony can seem like the definition of romance.
But they aren’t. At least, they don’t have to be. Only date people who treat you well, whom you can treat well, and only date people you genuinely like. It’s simple, obvious advice, and it needs to be said a lot more than it is.
Memory is a tricky thing, so bear with me. I was small when these memories formed, and at the distance of decades, it’s hard to tell the difference between true memory, corroborated reconstructions, and childhood imagination.
But I remember the cookies. I’m certain the cookies were exactly as I describe.
My Uncle B and Aunt M (really my father’s much older uncle and aunt, and rather terrifying in demeanor and voice) gave the same gift each year: a homemade cookie cutter shaped out of an old tin can and a tin or box of cookies made from their own collection of cutters. Uncle B made the cutters and Aunt M made the cookies, every year until I turned seven and we moved away.
Their cookies are among my earliest memories, and certainly my very first memories of Christmas. They were rolled vellum-thin, baked ’til they were just tinged with brown at the edges, and decorated with sparse perfection, a dragée here and a sprinkle of colored sugar there, just enough to lend some details to their shapes. The first one I remember is a whole train of sugar cookies – a locomotive, a string of different cars, and a caboose. I think (but I can’t rely on such an early memory) that there might have been a puff of smoke riding jauntily atop the train.
My family accumulated quite a collection of perfectly turned, finely detailed cookie cutters from this unlikely and intimidating source. My mother passed some of them on to me over the years – when I moved into my first apartment, when she moved to a new home, when I baked Christmas cookies in her new kitchen.
One Christmas over a decade ago, I pulled out my cookie cutters and baked and shaped and frosted cookies. And then, overcome with memory, I washed my hands and sat down at the kitchen table, adrift in the faintly sweet scent of sugar and butter, and I wrote a letter to my Uncle B. It was my first letter to him since Aunt M had died a few years ago, and the second letter I’d ever sent him, excepting my childish scrawl on the thank-you letters we’d send for those cookie gifts.
I wrote about using his cookie cutters that day, how these cutters had always symbolized Christmas to me, and of my fond and formative memories of their cookies. I thanked him both for the long-ago cookies and for the cutters, and I let him know they had been long and well loved.
He didn’t write back, not surprisingly. My family isn’t close-knit, and I was one of a swarm of great-nieces and great-nephews. He probably had little idea who I was, probably couldn’t pick me out of a group as a child or an adult.
In fact, I found out this was more-or-less true a few years later; he could only identify me by my remarkable resemblance to my mother. At the reception after a family funeral, Uncle B walked up to me and my sister, looked at my face, and announced imperiously “You must be one of [_____]’s daughters!” I told him he was right, and I told him my name and my sister’s.
His stern craggy face washed over with softness. “You’re the one who bakes cookies,” he said with wonder, and this man – who’d rarely smiled at me and never hugged me or even shaken my hand – pulled up a chair and sat down knee-to-knee with me, his hand reaching out gently over and over but never quite touching me, and talked. And talked. And talked. All his hardness smoothed away; he was full of memories himself, and he found me to share them with. When it was time to leave, he hugged me. And then he did it again.
I’m grateful whenever I have a chance to revisit that story. It’s a potent reminder that those small thanks are always worth sending, because you never know how meaningful they may be to the person you’re thanking. It’s a reminder to be grateful, to be mindful, to be kinder than necessary. It’s a reminder to keep trying – and failing, but trying! – to be my best self.
Dear Dad, I was thinking about “Macbeth” again this week, and the cat i’ the adage. Whenever I read that, I think of talking to you.
Dear Dad, I got some new cartridges for those pens you gave me when I first went back to school. Thanks for thinking of me, and for knowing how useful it is to have brightly colored pens so classmates don’t walk off with them.
Dear Dad, it might be about time for me to have a BLT. I never have one without thinking of that midnight with you. I wish I could take you to the neighborhood restaurant where I sometimes get them. You’d hate the noise and love the fries, and you would have been as vexed as I was that they called themselves Hot Suppa but weren’t open for supper, and as weirdly relieved as I was when they fiiiiinally started serving during supper hours.
Dear Dad, I’ve been in pain for a few weeks now — nothing serious, but unpleasant and even scary sometimes. The Fella has been unsurprisingly amazing and thoughtful during all that time. I wish you’d met him. You’d love and trust him with all your heart, just like I do. I think you’d love him for himself, not just because he loves and cares for your daughter so sweetly and unfailingly.
Dear Dad, I’ve spent a lot of years unwinding my complicated feelings about my childhood and the ways my parents coped with (or didn’t cope with) your own grief and heartache before I was born, and how that affected my own adult relationships and my own childless state, and I know that I might never come to the end of that skein.
But it gets easier and easier to reconcile that complex snarl of feelings with the simple love that I feel for you and Mom, and to say it over and over: Dear Dad, I love you. Dear Dad, I miss you.