As I write this the old movie, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, starring Doris Day and David Niven, murmurs in the background. Niven plays a New York drama critic married to Doris, and they have several rambunctious young boys–rambunctious being a polite term for bratty.
I love/hate this type of old movie. You know the kind: nothing too disastrous ever happens, at least nothing that can’t be resolved by movie’s end. If a couple is on the brink of divorce, no need to worry, they will manage to get their marriage back on track just in the nick of time. The older characters (in this case the boys’ Nana) are usually absent-minded in such a pleasant way that they’re not much good to anyone–but no one seems to mind. Apparently no family worth its salt back then lacked in charmingly feckless relatives. (The feckless relatives I grew up with–whom most of us grew up with–were not so charming, nor harmless.)
I thought that watching this old movie would be a pleasant way to spend my afternoon. I’ve already cleaned my room (after my granddaughter chided me for it looking like a tornado), and took care of various errands awaiting my attention. Hey, I have to interrupt myself here: just glanced at the TV, and they’ve got their youngest son cooped up in some kind of a cage. I forgot about that part of the movie. Anyway, seemed like a harmless enough past-time, kicking it with Doris Day and co. Her acting is all fluff, but these movies aren’t meant for deep contemplation anyway.
As I watched a couple of different scenes, something began nagging at me. I tried ignoring it cause I really wanted to sink into the movie, just let my mind relax for a couple of hours. You know how that goes sometimes: you try to pretend that something isn’t eating away at the back of your mind, and the more you deny it the faster it gnaws away.
Sigh. No point in fighting it, I finally decided, since it’s distracting me from the movie anyhow. I went to the TV guide listing for this movie, and saw that it was made in 1960. Oh crud.
1960 was a pivotal year in my life, for it was sometime during my 7th year that my mother left my father, and all hell broke loose. I believe that the reason this movie got to me is because of the obvious contrast of the 1960 world it portrays compared with the 1960 reality of my world. On TV back then (and in the movies) little girls (or boys) didn’t get molested. The sitcom Make Room for Daddy had no such connotations. Father Knows Best portrayed the kind of loving father so many of us longed for—the kind of dad who loved us in a pure way. The Real McCoys was about a down-to-earth, somewhat corny family–rather than some expose’ which revealed that grandpa had a fondness for little girls, or that daddy was a stinking drunk who beat mama senseless. The media didn’t tell the truth back then. While one can hardly fault them for not contaminating the living rooms of Americans with the corruption of abuse which infected so many real lives, the obvious chasm between the reality that a lot of us lived, and how reality was depicted on the TV and movie screen, makes me a bit crazy.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I could escape into sitcoms like I Love Lucy, or The Beverly Hillbillies. Yet something within hurts to watch these bland old shows with their implications of: this is how the world looks . . . no one ever gets badly hurt . . . mommies and daddies love each other forever and the major biggie of all . . . life is unremittingly fair.
I grew up in a brand-new suburb with streets which had yet to take a beating from metal roller skates—streets which appeared to me, in all their newness, kind and welcoming. They had yet to be marred with my blood (usually from wiping out on my bike.) If they hoarded secrets, how bad could they be?
Our house looked similar enough to the other houses on the block to give a rather cozy feel to the neighborhood. Walking home from school on crisp fall afternoons, I let my mind wander. It was easy to imagine that my home was a welcoming, safe haven, for what evils could exist in a suburb such as this? By the time I reached the corner of our street, my cheeks reddened with fresh air, something inside of me always clicked off. As if someone had flicked a switch. As if all hope died the moment I spied our house sitting there bracketed by our neighbors’ homes, looking oh so innocent.
In my home, Father Didn’t Know Best although, like any know-it-all, he sure thought he did. If life with my abuser had been dubbed Make Room for Daddy, I can guarantee it wouldn’t have been the sappy stuff of 50’s & 60’s sitcoms.
There is always a war within me when it comes to the old movies. They are comforting in a limited way, while at the same time they instill such a deep sense of sadness and loss. I may always watch them with a certain degree of wistfulness, perhaps even anger. And yet I can’t seriously imagine my early life without these frivolous portrayals of The All-American-Family. They might not have been a life-saver, but when you’re in serious danger of drowning, you cling to whatever’s at hand.