“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
~ Jennifer Cavaleri, as played by Ali MacGraw in ‘Love Story’
Being eleven years old and the big brother in your family leaves you with infinitely more questions than answers. The one thing I knew was that my mother and father were having problems in their marriage and I had no idea how to fix them.
As a young boy, my father instilled in me that I was the oldest in the family and as a boy, it was the double-whammy that an Italian father could lay me. All my relatives seemed to gravitate towards me just because of that fact; many hopes, many responsibilities and a mountain of pressure to fit into the role which I was born. My dad would say, “Remember Michael – you’re the oldest and your brothers need a leader and you’re it. You have to set a good example.” If he told me this when I was 18 rather than 5, I may have replied ‘Yeah, no shit, dad.’
Still, instead of questioning it, I naively accepted it. He was my dad and because I said it, I believed it. My years of second-guessing him were well into my future.
I walked into the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the table. I knew she had been crying. When I was younger, the fights between my parents were in hushed tones, so I never really knew what state she would be in at any given time of the day.
I sat down in my normal dinner spot, to her left at the opposite head of the table.
“What’s wrong mom?”
“Michael, daddy is going to be living at grandma’s and grandpa’s for a while.”
She started to cry again and took a sip of a drink.
I started to quietly cry. A minute or two passed.
“Why mom? What happened??”
“Sometimes couples have problems and need time to work them out apart.”
“But mom, I want dad here!” Now, the tears were flowing and I was filled the feeling of sadness and uncertainty.
As much as she felt sad for herself, I knew she wanted to reassure me.
“Michael, we’ll see how things go. You will still see him but it has to be this way.”
I was still crying but my inner voice was telling me something of what I was
subliminally aware: their eventual break-up had been years in the making and I was just realizing it now.
There was a calmness between us. I awkwardly understood that things had changed. It was December 1970 and this holiday would be very different that all the others proceeding it. We still went on in our day-to-day life, with the exception that my dad was around mostly on the weekends. Mom was in a funk and I don’t remember her laughing as much. As a person with a clever wit (she loved using the word ‘clever’), to see it suppressed by our new family arrangement was glaringly obvious.
Mom loved life in a quirky sort of way. She and my dad were both born in 1933,
however, there couldn’t be more polar opposite 37-year olds.
I think the best year of my dad’s life was 1951 – the year he graduated high school. He loved that year so much that for the next many decades, he was frozen in it. He used to tell me that he finished school on Friday and went to work the following Monday. A mindful, conservative, man of the ’50’s – he was trying to be the Ozzie Nelson rather than the Ricky Nelson.
Mom, conversely, was probably born 10 years too early; she would have made a great hippie. She was a free spirit that went from oppressed daughter to oppressed
wife. The mom I knew used to rebel early on by listening to the radio, and the
soundtrack of my early years was WABC-AM in New York City. Living atop the
Palisades directly across from Grant’s Tomb certainly had its advantages. We were witness to all that the big city offered with a Mayberry(1) type of feel.
(1) When I was a student in Cliffside Park High School, the term “Mayberry”, from the fictional town in the TV show ‘Green Acres’, was a pejorative. Kids in school thought Cliffside was a hick-town with a lot of big fish in our little pond. As I got older, they were more right than I gave them credit.
She loved cooking, listened to rock-n-roll, was an early practitioner of yoga and took up astrology. (Her first and possibly only email address was ‘astrojan’) She could crack the hardest crossword puzzle, clear every Jeopardy board and was a voracious reader.
I was now the man of the family, even though it would be a temporary position at the time. I felt the burden of doing what I could to keep mom’s spirits up. Up to this time, my dad’s idea of a chick flick was ‘Chisum’ starring John Wayne. When he took us to the theater, it was rated ‘M’ (for mature), so you needed an adult to get in. My father was more interested by the action between John Wayne and Forrest Tucker, the evil prairie businessman. As for me, I was curiously attracted to Lynda Day George – the tall beauty who was one of the few women in the film. I’d understand later in life what the attraction was.
Mom was known to read a romance novel as part of her repertoire. It was a part of the escapism from her daily life between work and caring for us. A movie came out, with much fanfare on TV: Love Story, based on a book by Erich Segal. I immediately recognized it because mom had read it earlier that year (as did many of the girls in my class).
A commercial came on TV for the movie.
“Mom, do you want to see Love Story with me?”
Translation: ‘Mom, drive us to the Lee Theater, pay for the tickets and I’ll be your date.’
She stared at me with an odd look.
“Do you really want to see that? I mean…”
“Yeah, it will be fun. I know you read the book. I think we should go.”
“Ok Michael, we can go this weekend.”
“It’s a date!”
Thinking back, this was my first date.
Even though it was Christmas break, I was looking forward to do something for
mom that she wanted to do instead of being totally fixated on my presents.
The weekend came and we were getting ready to go to the movies. If I remember correctly, I dressed a little more special than normal. Not only was it a date movie, it was also an evening showing – it may have been 7 or 8pm.
The Lee Theater was a majestic older venue with orchestra and balcony seating. It was a pretty full showing so mom and I went up to the balcony where we were able to get 2 front seats.
The details of the room faded as the lights dimmed. The only 2 distinct things I was aware of were the movie itself and my mom’s reaction to the scenes. While this is not a movie review, I felt the plot was a little bit thin and very predictable. I can only remember snippets of the film and some of the major scenes.
As the plot turned towards its inescapable ending, I saw a few tears start to flow from my mom’s right eye. By the time Jenny told Oliver that it was ‘time’ to go to the hospital, mom was in full catharsis mode and I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. I was sad for Jenny and mom at the same time – and for two completely different reasons. I think she needed a good tragic romance film to have her let go of her real-life turmoil. It wasn’t escapism as much as it was misery cozying up to company.
After Jenny passed into the cinematic great beyond, Oliver leaves the hospital. He is confronted by his father, who can only muster “I’m sorry.”
“No, love means never having to say you’re sorry.” He tells the elder Oliver Barrett – a line that Jenny told Oliver earlier in the film.
As I got older, I believed that this may have been the cheesiest line in movie history.
However, it was the 11-year old me who was comforting his mom after the Oscar®-winning movie for best score had come to its end. As the credits rolled, we looked at each other with a comforting glance.
We quietly drove home and walked in our house.
“Thank you for taking me to the movies, Michael.” She hugged me and kissed my head.
“You’re welcome, Mom.”
I smiled and went to bed.
My dad came back to live with us after staying at my grandparents for 2 months. The damage was done and the beginning of the end of their marriage was in full swing. Five years later, he left for the last time. The schism between them grew to a point that could no longer be mended.
I feel that I received the best of two people with diametrically opposed personalities: my dad’s sense of responsibility and my mom’s eternally free spirit.
As for the cheesy movie quote, well, it served more as reminder of two things: to limit the number of actions that would require me to apologize and also to be sorry for only actions that were mine.
The Elder Barrett’s offer of saying “I’m sorry” cannot reverse years of tension and estrangement between he and his son. Additionally, Oliver’s reply doesn’t
immediately reverse years of a broken relationship. Yet, it can be a start.
My mom passed away in 2006. I still tell her that I love her, because I do. She used to tell me that love was energy. We know that energy never disappears but changes form and lives on. I sometimes tell her that I’m sorry – sorry that I wasn’t a better son at times and didn’t deserve a parent who sacrificed so much for my brothers and me. She thought of everyone else before herself.
That was her purpose, her gift, her burden.
Maybe that’s why I want to live the rest of my life in ‘real time’. No holding back.
Living with passion, with purpose and inspiration, with love.