Directed by Frank Capra
This is less a review like I have done before and more a discussion of this film’s meaning to me. I guess I am opening up to anyone out there who reads this blog.
I have always loved this film. It was a good and moral story. George Bailey (James Stewart) had done the right thing all his life no matter what and in the end, he realized he was not as alone or as in desperate straits as he thought he was because he had friends. It is about how our lives have consequences and how if we were not born the world would most likely be a worse place. There are moments of genuine heart and good laughs in this movie. It made me feel good.
I am pretty sure I was the only person in my house that watched it with any type of regularity at Christmas time. My mother might glance at it, but she would not sit for the whole film. My sisters near as I can recall thought the movie was dumb and would often pass on it. I would get a snack and tune in to the PBS station that usually broadcast it every year.
The movie itself took on a different meaning for me many years down the road. I had not long before broken up with my then wife. We shared custody of our son. Christmas was approaching. It was going to be my first Christmas without my wife and where my son would be splitting it between two places.
On my weekends without my son I was working a part-time job at a local niteclub washing dishes. I did it every other weekend and it provided me with a good chunk of change to have nice weekends with my son. I would often stop off at the 24-hour Walmart along my way home and do some quick shopping. After one such evening of working I stopped as usual to pick up a few things. As I do every time I go shopping to this day I went window shopping among the DVDs. Blu-rays were not a thing then.
I had gotten the idea in my head of maybe picking up a few of my childhood favorites and exposing my son to them. At the time Walmart was selling two packs of DVDs for as I recall five dollars each. Two randomly paired movies for five dollars. They had their Christmas display up and there was nothing I particularly wanted or thought he would enjoy until I saw It’s a Wonderful Life paired with the original Miracle On 34th Street.
My thinking was being around five years old my son would enjoy the movie featuring Santa Claus much more than the film about a suicidal building and loan operator that was being framed by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) for crimes that carried serious jail time. Miracle went over like a lead balloon. He enjoyed it somewhat, but he just did not get the enjoyment I did out of it.
During that Christmas Season after some discussion his mother decided she wanted to spend Christmas Eve with her boyfriend and did not want my son tagging along. I was happy to spend any amount of time with my child so it was decided I would get him on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. My original plan was to bake some cookies and allow him to eat cookie dough but bigmouth told his mother about the cookie dough aspect and it erupted into a big fight so in order to keep the peace cookie dough was canceled.
At that point had no idea what to feed him because it all happened so late and what I had I knew he would not eat. My goal was to make the evening fun with fun food for him. In a moment of inspiration and at the most extreme of last minutes I bought and cooked a Stauffer’s Family Sized Macaroni and Cheese. While shoveling in that cheesy goodness I offhandedly suggested that me and him watch It’s a Wonderful Life. I did not think he would want to watch it. I just wanted to see it before Christmas and being Christmas Eve, the clock was ticking so I took my shot to watch it early with him rather than late without him. He agreed and we watched it. He laughed at all the right moments and I could tell he was invested in the story. All this with that amazing macaroni and cheese. It was a good evening.
One year passes and it is approaching Christmas and my son asks me if we going to watch that movie again on Christmas Eve. My mind blanked and I could not remember what he was talking about. I asked which one and he mentioned the one about the guy and the angel. I was a little surprised because I did not realize It’s a Wonderful Life had made enough of an impression on him a year prior for him to recall it let alone want to see it again. He had liked it but I did not think it was that much. I can’t remember if he asked about the macaroni and cheese or I just got some because that’s what we had done the previous year but I made the macaroni and cheese and we watched the movie and we had another good Christmas Eve and from that time on It’s a Wonderful Life was a Christmas Eve tradition for me and him starting around 7 or 8 in the evening.
I could leave it there and it would be a cute story about a tradition that started completely by accident but that would not be the full story. It would be less painful, but it would not be complete.
A few years ago my son, who was a teenager then, started being like all teenagers. He was headstrong and willful, but I thought we still had a solid relationship. I was wrong. I am not sure what happened or what got screwed up, but I was wrong. If I did something, he has never told me.
My son had recently started working his very first job and the hours of my job at the time made scheduling extended time with him difficult. A lot of my visits would be me picking him up from work and dropping him off at his mother’s or when his time off and my time off or my shift lined up I would see him. I hated it but that was life at the time.
He worked a job was bussing tables at a local tourist trap buffet. The food there is good by the way, but I will not name names here. One day I was at work I got a call from him which I promptly answered. Getting a call or text from him was rare and usually something important. He had left his shoes, which were non-slip and required for his job, at my place and he wanted me to bring them to him. I was in the middle of my shift and just up and leaving was not an option especially considering that to go home, get his shoes and then take them to him at his mother’s new place before he had to go to work would be difficult to impossible. He had to be at work in approximately an hour and it would just about take that to get home and get the shoes to him and that was without his travel time. I suggested he have his mother drive him down since I was closer to his job than he was and I may even have suggested his grandmother stop over and see if my sister would let her in. He said his mother would not take him down there and he hung up.
His phone call was followed almost immediately by a phone call from his mother who proceeded to yell at me and insult myself and my family and even the individual I was seeing at the time. I explained to her the situation and she was uninterested, so I hung up on her. She promptly called me back, yelled at me for about two minutes and hung up.
To give you context of time, this was a little before Thanksgiving 2015. This is important for the rest of the story. Thanksgiving comes and I have not heard from him or her. None of my calls or text messages were returned. It was tradition that I would get him in the afternoon or late evening on Thanksgiving and keep him into Black Friday and usually through the holiday weekend. The only discussion we ever had really was what time he would arrive or and it was always vague as in when she was done at her mother’s. And that is fine but I never got that call or any other that year.
I was depressed and panicked because I was afraid I would not see my son. My identity was (and somewhat still is after all this time) tied to being a parent. I outwardly expressed that his mother must be stopping him but honestly I knew he just did not want to see me. I was in a fog with everything that was going on in my head. I probably should not have been behind the wheel because I was in no mental shape to drive but regardless on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2015 I drove up to her place demanding to see him. For a while she refused but then she caved and told him to come but by that point her boyfriend had called the police and they showed up so he never spoke to me and I went away peacefully at their insistence. I was utterly ridiculous that day, but I had no idea what else to do.
I made a few pitstops along the way to pull myself together to keep driving. Convenience stores because nobody would bother a dude sitting in a car in one of those parking lots on the busiest travel day of the year. Weird thing was I would go in and pick up little snack odds and ends that I knew he liked to place in his oversized Christmas stocking even though I had no indication I would see him at all ever again. What had happened felt final.
The following weeks felt like years. I barely ate and I was just confused the whole time. For 17 years I had thought of myself as his father and he had been with me so often when I would go and do anything that not having him around kind of felt like someone died. I do not know who reading this has felt the passing of a loved one but that is the emptiness I felt without him present.
I also never quite realized how much me and him were a pair people expected to be together. People I knew would see me out without him and ask where he was. It happened a lot in those brief weeks. And honestly I lied to them. I made up stories about why he was not with me. The weird thing was I did not consciously lie. It was not like I was making up a story on the spot. Something took over and it just came out because my mind could not deal with not having him around. Even today so many years afterword him not being around is something I cannot quite connect to.
Between Thanksgiving and 10 days prior to Christmas I did not hear word from him or his mother and then 10 days prior to Christmas I received a text from my ex-wife saying that my son missed me and would like to see me for Christmas. Truthfully, it didn’t sit right with me. She had spent years telling me to go away and had even asked me to sign over custody so I would get out of their lives. I think some of this came from her boyfriend who did not like me being around. I kept it civil with him but he would often take her aside and in hushed tones complain about me. She finally had me gone without needing to go to court so her facilitating contact with me and my son seemed incongruent with so much of what she said and done prior. But I wanted to see my son and I said yes.
For the previous 12 years or so I had always gotten my son on Christmas Eve into the midpoint of Christmas Day. In the better times the three of us even spent the day at her mom’s but boyfriend threw a fit and that ended. His mother was not a Christmas person, but she wanted to spend Christmas Eve with her boyfriend without my son around. That is not an assumption. That was stated to me several times. I like having my son around and having him around on a holiday was always a bonus so it was no big deal to me to give her alone time.
I got him a few days before Christmas. Star Wars: The Force Awakens had just been released and I thought it would be a good bonding thing for us to go see it together. It would be a great way to cross the divide. Originally we were to see it opening day but he never responded to my texts or calls to see if he was still going so I dragged my girlfriend along so someone would use my pre-purchased ticket.
It is worth mentioning that this child had several times over the years made me sit through every Star Wars film released in marathon sessions. I adore Star Wars so sitting through them was and is not a big deal to me, but it was never something I made him do. It was always at his request. We saw the then newest film and after we were out of the theater he said “Are you happy? We saw your stupid film.” I didn’t say anything back because I was surprised given that he made me marathon Star Wars before and I didn’t want to start a fight since he was finally back.
Christmas Eve comes and I am nervous. Given his reaction to Star Wars I was not sure how he would be with It’s a Wonderful Life, but I put it in anyway and I served up the Stauffer’s macaroni and cheese like always. The whole time he looked irritated watching the movie and that was the first time since buying it on DVD that I did not enjoy myself watching it. There was not a smile or moment of joy in his face or in his body language. And when the movie was over he says “There. We got your stupid move in.” And he leaves the room. I do not think we spoke for the rest of the night.
The next day we opened presents and he is almost completely disinterested in them. And I have that sinking feeling again which I first had the night before when we watched It’s a Wonderful Life.
His mother texted me that she was on her way so at 12:31 on Christmas Day of 2015 I walked him out to her car and gave him a hug and asked him when I would see him again and he says he’ll call me.
He never called me. The last time I heard his voice was on Valentines weekend of 2016. I had called him regularly since the beginning of the year trying to hear him or talk to him but all I got was voicemail and I truly believe that time he answered was completely by accident. All I got was a groggy “Leave me alone. You’re annoying!” Then silence.
Despite its strong connection to my son in my mind I still watch it on Christmas Eve at around 7 PM like just about every other year when I still saw him. Why? First of all, the movie makes me feel good. It always has. But more importantly for a little while on Christmas Eve I can remember my child and a tradition that we had that at least on my part I enjoyed. I remember the good Christmases we had. I remember other happy memories too. I remember a lot of happy things about my child while watching that movie.
It’s a Wonderful Life connects me to a child I once knew that I haven’t seen since 12:31 PM on Christmas day of 2015. I may not actually see him at Christmas but for me that movie is a way to spend Christmas with him. I still love him and hope to someday fix whatever went wrong with us.