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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Essay: A place with a room at the inn.

This essay originally appeared in the Dec. 2005 issue of Indy Men’s Magazine. Having just run into my friend Marge Krah in New York, I felt compelled to dig it out and post it here. Happy holidays to all and peace to those struggling with the challenges of the season. 

A place with a room at the inn.

By Lou Harry

There was a television station in New York that used to broadcast a Yule log every Christmas Eve.

I kid you not. You’d turn on the station and, for hours, there would be nothing but a fireplace burning in your TV. And some generic carols playing. It was a once-a-year broadcast, kind of like The Wizard of Oz only without the commercials.

We never watched the Yule log at my house. There were other issues, which I’ll get to. But I remember clearly that Marge’s dad had the Yule log going when I stopped by her house on Christmas Eve. Marge’s dad was sitting in his living room chair in front of his faux-brick wall and the Yule log was on the tube and Marge’s two sisters and her mom were hanging out and hot chocolate was not doubt involved. Something akin to comfort and joy permeated the place.

And nothing in particular happened. This isn’t that kind of memory.

Instead, this is the kind of memory where what wasn’t happening, what wasn’t said, was as important as what happened and what was said.

What wasn’t said: “Hey, Marge’s Dad. Thank you for letting me intrude on your domestic bliss on this family holiday of all family holidays. Why am I here and not at home? Because I’m so frickin’ confused about my life, and am just starting to grasp what it meant to lose my father at a young age. Because I’ve rejected the Church and I’m struggling to figure out how to deal with that, and part of my 16-year-old attempt is to feel hypocritical if I show up at Mass only on Christmas and Easter, even though I know it would make my mother happy, or, at least, make her not unhappy. And, Marge’s Dad, I am not telling you this, but as I walk into your home, I am wracked with guilt about how trying not to be a hypocrite is keeping me from being with my family. So I’ve been driving around town kind of a mess, and I need a place to be, a place that feels normal, a place with a room at the inn.”

And Marge’s house, with Marge’s dad at its center, let me in.

I haven’t talked to Marge in more than a decade. Haven’t seen her father since high school graduation. Can’t remember the names of her sisters.

But when I call her—which I just did a few minutes ago—it’s like Christmas Eve again.

—————–

“I can still picture you sitting on the couch,” Marge says of my unannounced visits. “It never seemed odd. My parents were just glad I had a boy around—which turned out to be a short-lived thing.”

Marge, you should know, accepted her homosexuality once she got to college. She didn’t officially tell her parents until she was 27.

“I think all the women in my family knew,” Marge said. “And I think my dad did, too, but he totally blocked it out. He said one time, ‘If you keep hanging around with these older girls, your mother is afraid you’ll be gay’—which I’m sure scared him. When I finally told them—when I felt I could handle how they felt—my sisters just said, “Duh.” My mom said it didn’t matter, ‘as long as I wasn’t going on Oprah.’ My father just said, ‘…if that’s the choice you’re making.’ He and I debated that point—whether it was a choice—until July 3 of 2005 when he died.”

When he passed, Marge’s dad was sitting in his chair, in his living room, surrounded by his wife and three daughters. It wasn’t the same chair I remember. Chairs had come and gone in 25 years. It wasn’t even the same house.

Still.

When you lose a parent at a young age, you can’t help posing the impossible questions of how life would have been different. Those inevitably spin to the positive.

For instance, I don’t think about the fact that I might be in an iron lung now, thanks to the increase in second-hand smoke. Instead, I think about how those Christmas Eves would have been easier. Either I would have stayed home with my lapsed-Baptist dad and watched over our own televised Yule log, or he would have said to me, “Lou, your family’s going to church. I don’t’ give a damn what you believe or don’t believe—you’ve got a family.”

I know nothing, really, about my own father’s attitude toward Christmas. He died when I was just a little guy, and any memories I have are ones created out of generic images. Him struggling to put together a tricycle. Him dragging a tree up the porch stairs. Him cutting a turkey.

One of the problems I had with church was that I couldn’t get a picture of heaven that wasn’t loaded with unresolvable complications. Should the Reaper arrive and I have the chance to see my father, who would he be? He died at 33—if I saw him at that age, he would seem like a kid. That’s not the father I would be looking for. And why would he want to see me at the age of my death when all he knew of me was a 3-year-old? What happens when my 60-plus-at-her-death mom meets my 30-plus-at-his-death dad? I mean, I liked Harold and Maude as much as the next guy—but not for my parents and certainly not for eternity, with me at whatever age I drop trailing behind them.

Too much to figure out. Best to forget about heaven. Best to do your best here and let the rest take care of itself.

Still, it took me years to not feel like a hypocrite walking into a church without faith. Years to feel that that wasn’t an insult to all the believers inside. Now I can do it—I’m able to appreciate sacred spaces without having to buy into their supernatural quality.

And to understand that there are many kinds of sacred spaces.

“If we didn’t have this conversation, I wouldn’t have known what it meant to you,” says Marge. “I didn’t realize that closeness my family had was a rare thing. It wasn’t without its troubles and whatnot, but it was safe, and there was routine, and it was good.”