Sometimes, movies for me are as much about the memory of who I watched with as they are about the movies themselves, and no movie embodied this more than “A Christmas Story”.
Its funny how we remember our parents, or how we think about them after they are gone. I don’t ever remember my father being terribly open about his feelings about the people he loved. It wasn’t that he didn’t love them; it was that he just seemed to take it for granted, and expected the rest of us to do the same. But those weren’t the only things that I recall about growing up with him. Phrases such as “No brain, no pain.” “Pain is nature’s way of saying don’t do that” and “No good deed goes unpunished were repeated so often in my home that they became automatic responses to certain circumstances and events…so much so that it became difficult to think of him in terms other than a gruff guy of few words and flinty sarcasm for the words that came. As a result, I remember hearing some of his friends speak at his funeral service, and wondering who it was they were talking about. But the single greatest character trait I recall was a real humbugism about Christmas. This would have made his love for “A Christmas Story” seem to be an anomaly unless you knew of his love of Jean Shepard stories.
When this movie was on, it was its own Christmas miracle, as my father would watch it, and laugh. Not chuckle. Not chortle. Not guffaw. LAUGH.
For years after his passing, I would watch the movie with him every year. Oh, I knew he wasn’t really there, but just the same, I felt that I could look over, and see him smiling and laughing, in what was for me, an unfamiliar attitude from him. And though I have sons of my own, I didn’t share this experience with them. It wasn’t something I could adequately describe, and I never wanted to feel compelled to do so. But each year, this echo of memory seemed to fade a bit more. Last year, I strained through the movie, to see Dad laughing, to hear him, and it was difficult. It wasn’t a good experience, and I was left feeling frustrated.
This year, when I sat down to watch the movie, I got nothing.
I let it play, and I listened. Darren McGavin was still the Old Man. Melinda Dillon is still Mom. But Dad wasn’t there. And I realized that even though I like Jean Shepard’s stories too, I watched it to spend time, as fleeting as it was, with the ghost of my Dad, and without him there, it is reduced to a story that I know too well, and that holds no new meaning to replace the one I’ve lost. As I watched the scene where Mom and the Old Man are sitting in the dark with a lit up Christmas Tree and the snow falling outside, I realized that this is how I want the memory of my Father and this movie to remain. A quiet moment with someone he held dear, saying nothing and everything in a setting where he could speak volumes without saying a word and still be perfectly understood.
I’m sad that I can no longer hear him when I watch this, and that no matter how hard I focus in my mind’s eye, I can’t see him just enjoy this story, and let his guard down completely. I still carry other memories. Other movies. Other experiences in which he chose to share something with us that wasn’t for everyone. But the lag in the echo grows longer with the years, and the echo grows quieter. I like to think that the silence in this movie is an indication that he is at peace, but I suspect that it has more to do with me finding peace with my memories of him, and the realization that I need to make such memories of my own with my sons. Maybe something to help them understand me when I am gone, as they so the same with their own kids. But in the interim, I’ll be looking for my own moment with my wife, in the dark before a lighted tree, with a steady snow falling outside.