December 14, 2013

FINDING THE PONY: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ No it isn’t. Yes it is.

Jim Arnold

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my father lately. I don’t actually do that very often. He died in early June,1991, in a hospital in Morecambe, England, where he’d been for the last two years of his life, sinking deeper and deeper into dementia, which, in truth, was OK because it relieved each of us from the burden of conversation on the two times I was able get over there to visit him.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

By that point, we had nothing to say to each other anyway; hadn’t for years. We were a cliché; as real an example of Harry Chapin’s “The Cat’s in the Cradle” as you could find. As a child, he had no time for me, none, not any. Even the simplest question would be answered, “Ask me again later,” which meant not at all. As an adult, I had no time for him, and I made sure payback was a bitch.

I was 41 when he died. I have no idea how old he was. Really. Not a clue. I admit, I did stop asking, but there was a time I really wanted to know. Talk about family secrets. But then, I’ve never known how old my sisters were either. My sister Betty is still living and I guess I could ask, but I’ve stopped caring about that as well.

I suppose he could have come to mind because I have cancer and you tend to revisit, rethink, a lot of things as part of the journey. But I don’t think that’s it. My father was so removed from decisions I made about my life for so long, having cancer would’ve been just one more thing not to talk to him about.

Nah. I think he came to mind because, like a ripple in The Force, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about to make its annual television appearance.

My dad loved Frank Capra movies. When I was still trying to get his attention, in my early 20s probably, I bought a book from the Book of the Month club called “The Name Above the Title” that chronicled Capra’s years in Hollywood to that point. I really enjoyed the book, enough that I’ve gone back and read it again.

My father loved that book. It would have been a good thing to talk about, I think, if either of us knew how. He said what he liked and I said what I liked, but, again, just because words were exchanged, doesn’t mean there was a conversation.

Looking back, I think my father might have related to the story of Capra’s family coming to the United States in 1903 when Frank Junior was 6 years old. They didn’t have very much and worked hard for what they got. My parents came to this country in 1963, and, although the times were different, I think he could relate to the struggle and the outsidedness that Capra talked about.

What does any of this have to do with my having cancer in 2013? More than you’d think, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be at the heart of it.

For a long time I hated that movie; hated it big time. True, in my early 20s, I could still watch with the sense that the moral issues at its core were valid: do the right thing for the right reasons, put yourself second as you helped others, and you would receive back tenfold. How could that not be a good thing? That’s the Beatitudes, brothers and sisters, straight out of the Sermon on the Mount.

But it was also around this time — if you’ll forgive a terribly tortured metaphor — that I took my first bite of the apple from the tree of cynicism. Angels notwithstanding, I simply didn’t buy the ending. It seemed to me the worst kind of Capra Corn.

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