Essay: The painful reality of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

This one originally appeared in the Dad Files column of Indy Men’s Magazine and was later reprinted in “The X-Mas Men: An Eclectic Collection of Holiday Essays” (Indiana Historical Society Press).

The painful reality of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

By Lou Harry

There are lots of reasons why It’s a Wonderful Life is one of the best movies—and certainly the best holiday movie—ever. Heartwarming. Nostalgic. Dramatic. Funny. Great character actors in supporting roles. Donna Reed hiding naked in a bush.

The reason that is rarely, if ever, mentioned, though, is the fact that it’s also freakin’ terrifying.

I’m not talking about the movie’s ghosts (show me a kid afraid of Clarence, and I’ll show you a tyke who can look forward to a lifetime of having his lunch money stolen by girls). What I’m referring to is the moment in the film when everything in the life of George Bailey seems to have gone south. Rerun the film in your head—past the jitterbugging into the swimming poo scene, past the honeymoon interruptus, past the run on the bank, past the World War II montage, past the “Where’s the money, you stupid, silly old fool”” reaming out of Uncle Billy.

It starts there. You’ll recall that the money from the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is missing and it looks like the Baily family’s lifelong battle against the tyrannical Mr. Potter is lost. Money is at the center of this movie. He who controls the money has the power. Potter is about to get the last piece.

Having no clue what to do about the ruin and scandal that are the soon-to-be-dropped other shoe, George heads home.

Ever go home after a really bad day?

One kid is making a travesty of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” on the piano. Another asks about a wreath that George forgot at the office. One’s tugging on his leg, and another has come down with a cold. The knob comes off the staircase railing in George’s hand. He hasn’t’ got a moment to get acclimated. You sense that he can’t breathe. He’s burnt out. The walls are tighter than they’ve ever been.

And he snaps.

He’s a good guy, this George Bailey. He hung around town to keep his family business going. He stays true to his gal even though it’s clear that town floozy Violet is good for at least a wonderful night or two. You get a sense that maybe, just maybe, the guy has had a drink or two on occasion (how else to explain the fact that he named one of his kids ZuZu?), but he’s managed to keep his do-for-others life under control.

Until now.

“Why do we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town?” he rails at his missus. “Why did we have to have all these kids?” Who knows what he would have said if one of the rugrats hadn’t walked in and asked, “Dad, how do you spell’ frankincense’?”

George tries to get things under control; he really does. He makes an effort to be nice to ZuZu and to pretend he gives a rat’s ass about her flower petals. But it comes out all wrong. He calls her teacher and takes out his hostility on her…and pisses off her husband in the process.

And the kids keep coming at him.

“Daddy, how do you spell ‘Hallelujah.’”

“How should I know? What do you think I am, a dictionary?”

More piano banging. Another kid plays with the vacuum cleaner.

“STOP IT!” George says. Kicks over a model. Throws some books.

Show the scene to a twentysomething guy who’s about to be a father for the first time, and you’re likely to get a “that couldn’t be me” reaction.

Show it to anyone with more than one kid, and the response will be more akin to “Yep. Been there.”

Not that we’re proud of it.

Of course, we all want to believe that we’re terrific dads. I want to believe that my kids will grow up remembering all of the wonderful things we did together, all of the shared projects and the road trips and the lawn games and quiet moments. The morning snuggles. The late-night talks. The family movie nights. When I start to think about the great moments I’ve had with my kids, the memories end up like planes circling the airport on a snowy night. There are just too many of them to process at once.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I think I’m doing a pretty good job at the fathering thing. But it’s that one percent that I fear defines me. One percent that makes me wonder if ultimately I’m to be judged Olympic-style—with the high and low scores thrown out—or if the worst of me is what I truly am and what I ultimately need to account for.

I can’t escape the fear that it’s my failures that my kids will remember—the times, like the other day, when the house seemed unbearably cluttered with “stuff,” when one kid had to be taken to dance lessons and the other to choir and the other to Tae Kwon Do and all needed to be fed and then cleaned up after and book bags were tripped over and dishwasher emptying chores ignored and the want-to-do household list was pushed aside by the have-to-do household list and I couldn’t see a moment on the horizon when I could just be. Just stop everything and be. Keep the walls where they should be and silence the incessant din and focus on something without having to think about focusing.

It takes only one small thing to raise that moment from teetering to collapse. That happened when a cup of juice splashed onto the kitchen counter, which was covered with bills and homework and magazines not yet put away. A whose-fault-was-it fight broke out between two of my daughters, neither of whom lifted a finger to help.

And then the baby started screaming.

Well, actually the baby started screaming after I yelled.

At the risk of mixing metaphors for a moment, let us shift away from It’s a Wonderful Life and consider Wile E. Coyote. Like him, I’ve got a weapon (he: the giant boulder balanced on the precipice; me: vocal volume). While intending to use the weapon against the opposing force (the Road Runner; my children), any outside observer can see that the end result is that it’s going to fall back on me.

The shouting turned me into bad dad.

I could see it in their faces, and I knew I was in the wrong. Not that they were in the right; I just had tipped the scales so that their wrongness was no longer an issue. I knew that I had lost control. My wife had that Mary Bailey “honey, you’ve just made things worse” look in her eyes, and I knew that I had had my George Bailey moment. Even though I do not hit my children, for a moment, they were afraid.

It’s a powerful feeling.

And it sort of works. If the goal is shutting everyone up.

And it’s all there in It’s a Wonderful Life.

But unlike George Bailey, when I blow up, there’s no chance of a guardian angel appearance to put me back on the straight and narrow. Instead, I step out on the porch, replaying the scene in my mind, going from anger to denial (I wasn’t that loud and scary) to bargaining (if they hadn’t have been so rude…) to depression (I don’t deserve children) to acceptance.

Well, maybe not acceptance. To accept it would be to say that there’s nothing I can do about it. That this is the way I am.

There is, though. I’m supposed to be the grown-up.

In the lobbyish area of my neighborhood supermarket, there’s a sign that boasts of the number of days since there has been an incident. I’ve got something like that sign hanging in my head, reminding me that when I blow up, I’ve blown it. It’s back to square one—rebuilding trust. On the surface, that may seem pretty easy. For me, usually a game of bocce out on the lawn or a bowl of popcorn and a movie with them can seem to bring things back to where they should be. Watch the way the children hang on George at the end of the movie, when all becomes right with the world. Didn’t he just yell at them a few minutes earlier? Kids are remarkably resilient.

Every December when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gets another chance.

I’m not sure how many the rest of us good dads get.

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