As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a personal tradition of mine to see a movie every year on Christmas Day. I was sitting around feeling lonely (also, it seems, a holiday tradition) when a friend put out a call for Christmas orphans to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the IFC Film Center.
Now. It’s a Wonderful Life has traditionally been one of my least favorite holiday movies. I’ve usually attributed this to a couple of factors. First, my family (as much as I can recall) considered Miracle on 34th Street to be the quintessential holiday movie. It’s the only film I remember watching around the holidays with my parents (to be more specific, with my father, which is telling, since my mother most certainly had to be there as well, unless she was off wrapping presents and the movie was a method to keep us kids distracted). Second, I don’t remember seeing the movie until I was 23 or 24 years old and I saw it when my second husband forced it on me. And I hated the message (I thought) it sent.
For my most of my life I’ve had to play caretaker to other people. Whether it was being the older sister to my brother and protecting him from the harsh realities of living in a dysfunctional and often abusive home to playing adult as a young teenager while my mother sowed the first of her wild oats after my parents were divorced, I often was forced into roles that I neither asked for nor wanted. I left home at 16 for college not because I was ready but because I feared I’d kill myself if I were forced to stay any longer in a situation in which no one protected me from things adults were supposed to shield kids from: abuse, incest, rape, pedophilia, abandonment, and more.
I set myself free into a world I told myself I was prepared for, but deep down I knew I was lying to myself. Not much more than a year later I had married myself off to someone whom I’d support financially while he’d follow his whims (though I suppose he’d make the same claim about me). I entered the worlds of alcoholism, addiction, and sex work for the first time, all of them intertwined. I had my first abortion at the behest of my husband, who made it an ultimatum for his commitment to our relationship; as soon as it was over, he left me through the revolving door that had come to reside in our mutually abusive relationship. When we went to parties and slipped into a bathroom together, no one knew if the awful sounds we made were from rough sex or a violent argument. It could have gone either way toward the end, and I could always swing a mean punch. You become a very angry person when your life is never really your own.
I don’t believe I’ve mentioned a few memories which, as all memories, may or may not be accurate, but they are as true as they can be, and they are my truth, they are what I hold inside of me, clear and bright and painful…
…how I could have gone to one of the Seven Sisters Schools. I could have gone to the University of Chicago. My mother talked me out of it. Actually, she wouldn’t let me.
…how I was accepted into the San Antonio Youth Symphony Orchestra. My father had driven me to the audition. But then he said the rehearsals would be too much driving, that I couldn’t really become a member.
…how in third grade the principal tested my IQ (it had already been done many times by then) and urged my parents to let me skip a couple grades. They said I was too immature.
…how when I was very small, and I knew I was smart, smarter than other kids, my parents forbade me from using that word, “smart.” I think, or remember at least, it was because it would represent committing the sin of pride. Because I couldn’t say it, I took to writing it in my closet, and by the time we moved to Texas, just a few months after I turned eight years old, I’m told I’d written “Amy is smart” in my closet hundreds of times.
I left my first husband and was engaged to my second, pregnant with my first son before the divorce was even final to the first.
That was another relationship, another marriage, that never should have happened. Another marriage my family should have stepped in and put an end to. More so in this instance because I was marrying my uncle’s best friend, whom my aunt had known since they were teenagers. He was almost 13 years older than I was. He was sober. Everyone in this farce should have known better than I did to stop the tragedy before plunged to its dramatic death, before so many lives were ruined. The irony is that I was probably the person who knew best that it wouldn’t work out, the person who was more mature and aware and knowledgeable of the mistakes being made. I was one of the few adults in the room the day we got married. I should have stopped things before they went too far; I suppose that’s why everyone blamed me, why I bore the brunt of the anger when it all fell apart and I walked away with our son.
Of course, I wasn’t as strong then as I am now, and I needed a man right away, another man to take care of. I found him in my younger son’s father. I won’t go into the dynamics of that relationship, other than that it was another one I shouldn’t have been in. But it resulted in my younger son, who was neither planned nor expected yet turned out to literally be my salvation, the one person who has shown me both that I could be a better human being and that I had the strength necessary to do so.
Along the way, I’ve been responsible for so many people. Both of my ex-husbands. My younger son’s father for the majority of the seven years we were together. Always living in homes and places I didn’t want to live. Taking jobs I didn’t want to take. Buying furniture I didn’t want to buy. Seeing movies I didn’t want to see. Eating at restaurants I didn’t want to eat at. Sitting in the passenger seat of cars I bought when I wanted to drive. Never feeling as though I was in control of my life, a life I felt I had fought for clawed my way to the top for. I had paid for my own education. I had elbowed my way into careers and worked my way to the top. Even moving to NYC, trying to survive here, whatever success or failures I’ve had? Whatever help I’ve been able to procure? No one has helped me do that. No one has given me a ladder or a step stool or a hand up.
I’ve watched from the sidelines as my brother has a solid (if somewhat rocky) relationship with my father, and my sister considers my mother her best friend. My brother has had his life subsidized by my father, and ditto for my sister with my mother. Meanwhile, I was largely forgotten the minute I left Texas, with the assumption (I guess?) that I was strong and smart enough to take care of myself, that I didn’t need their help.
This is not to say that my brother and sister have not had their own struggles and suffered their own trauma and have not have abuse inflicted on them. I have seen what has been done to them, and I have heard stories of more. But there is a reason they each have stable jobs and are home-owners while I’m a week or so away from homelessness. There’s a reason they each have stable relationships and regular, if not daily, contact with one of our parents, while I get nothing. There’s a reason they each have long-term relationships with relative ease, while I’ve struggled with commitment (barring the death of Jack).
(Hint: The reasons for the second paragraph have to do with the preceding paragraph.)
When I’ve watched It’s A Wonderful Life in years past, I’ve hated how George Bailey always wants to get out from under the yoke of his family’s responsibilities, away from the stupid and narrow small-town thinking but always gets sucked back in by someone else’s mistakes or misfortunes. It isn’t his fault that his father dies or that the druggist makes a mistake or that the bank runs out of money or that his brother is selfish (why not knock some sense into his head and remind him of his promise, you idiot?) or that Mary wants to stay in Bedford Falls (convince her otherwise!)/can’t figure out the rhythm method (I know there were condoms back then!) or that Mr. Potter is such a greedy old bastard (not his problem) or that his uncle is such an idiot (ditto) or his mother needs help (same). Why do everyone else’s problems have to be his problems?
And when I’ve mentioned this objection to everyone I’ve talked to about the movie, they’ve countered with, “But don’t you see? The movie is all about how the world would be so much worse off without him in it! The world needs George Bailey!”
But I haven’t been convinced by this argument. The world doesn’t need anyone. It gets along just fine without any one person. I don’t believe in the entire premise of the film. Because it’s impossible to just subtract one person from the world and expect that everything else will be exactly the same. Who knows that Harry would be born the exactly same year, for instance? (Unlikely.) Or that the druggist wouldn’t have hired a different boy? (Also unlikely.) Etc. Etc. It just doesn’t hold up.
As it turns out, though, the people advancing this line of reasoning (all exes, so I need not worry about offending them; they’re already offended by me) are dumb. Because after seeing the movie this year (I’m glad I went) I realized that isn’t the point after all.
At the end of the film (which I’d forgotten, which isn’t surprising, as in 2012 I realized I’d conflated the ending of Taxi Driver with the ending of Dog Day Afternoon and had therefore been misremembering the former for almost 20 years…), George Bailey’s missing $8,000 is made up by members of the community, the people whose lives he had helped in all the years he had stayed in Bedford Falls (all those years he had put himself behind others). They all stream into his home, some with only a few dollars and others with jars filled with money. The housekeeper he grew up with brings money she’s been saving for years, the bartender brings money from the jukebox (I think?), others bring money they’ve been saving for other reasons.
It made me think of all the times that my life has been saved, not by my family (who more often than not would either put me into a mess—like George’s uncle—or laugh as I found myself in one and couldn’t get out of it by myself), but by the generosity of friends, who had no reason to help me, who weren’t tied to me by blood but by a real and honest desire to see good things happen to me because they believed I was a good person who didn’t deserve the bad hand I’d been dealt.
This was true when I’ve put up calls for help on Facebook and people have come to my aid. This was true when I posted on Facebook that my laptop had been stolen (as it turned out, by my then-roommate’s boyfriend) and a friend (with whom I’d been angry for a somewhat silly reason) offered to buy me a refurbished one for up to $500. This was true most recently when a reader of this blog noticed a link I have on this page to “Buy Me a Coffee,” and sent me a good deal more than a cup of coffee would cost.
So this time, when I watched It’s A Wonderful Life, I didn’t sit at the end of the movie shaking my head, thinking what a ridiculous film it was and regretting leaving the house, wishing I’d spent my Christmas movie dollars on something more to my liking. Instead I sat there wiping the tears from my face and wishing I’d worn my waterproof mascara and eyeliner. I knew then that I’d go back to where I was staying after I had hot cocoa & good conversation with my friends, and it would still be a crummy Christmas because my dad and my brother still wouldn’t be calling me—and that hurts so very much, to be invisible to your family—but that I did also have something quite valuable: friends who thought I deserved more. And that was a lovely gift to have received, especially unexpectedly from a movie I thought I hated.