Why Watch a Movie When You Can Be In It?

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January Sundays are about the Patriots and my 91-year-old mother. Mom joins Husband and me for some chips, chili, and 3+ hours of cheering for Tom and Gronk. With her beloved Patriots going – once again – to the Super Bowl, this weekend was a “buy” for Pats fans.

To fill the void, Husband and I had Mom over for dinner and a movie; always a treat for her to view a high def picture on a big screen, with a volume that ranges up to 30. (Although perfectly happy with her 10 inch TV, she reluctantly admits that ours is a little better.)

After several preview options, Victoria and Abdul beat out Marshall by a vote of 2 to 1.

After Mom settles in, softly sinking into her personal corner of the couch, I glance over to evaluate her position. After making some minor adjustments, I’m comfortable that she’s comfortable.

To enhance her movie viewing experience I bring her a bowl of Skinny Pop (Mmmm... what’s this? which translates to: where’s the trans fat, artificial flavoring, beta-carotene and preservatives?) By the time Husband and I have refilled twice, Mom’s on kernel #8... one piece of corn at a time... 

The movie starts and Mom lights up. I can see her wheels turning. She’s not necessarily anticipating how the story will unfold, but rather, waiting to see and hear what visual and audio parts of the story she can relate to... what brings back memories. It’s not a conscious process, but a pattern that seems to become more ingrained with each passing year.

Mom is familiar with the premise of Victoria and Abdul (Queen Vicky finds friendship in an unlikely young man from India) but is quickly taken with the scenery on the big screen. Mom’s eyes “fight with each other” (a non-medical phrase she’s crafted to convey her visual difficulties), so she scans the picture with minuscule head movements that allow her to take in the whole screen. And - she smiles.

It’s around 1898 and Queen Victoria (played brilliantly by Judi Dench) enters the scene.

Mom has her first relatable moment: My grandfather was alive during Queen Victoria’s reign. I acknowledge this as an interesting (and somewhat obvious) fact and am careful not to encourage or engage. Mom is a story-teller extraordinaire... about anything and everything. Accurate, intent, articulate, and.... random. Husband and I call it “12 Degrees of Separation”. Mom’s stories can start with Queen Elizabeth or the president, but invariably end with praise or puffery for her father or husband. The story thread from point A to point M is always logical, if not a tad lengthy.

Throughout the film there are scenes of India, (...We had a couple from India stay with us once... That looks like where they were from.)... Scenes of the QE2 at a port (...Those ships were magnificent... my grandfather...), and extraordinary scenes in the royal gardens (...Those peonies should be cut...)

As the movie progresses, there comes a point where Queen Vicky, at the Munshi’s urging, steps up to the piano for a creaky rendition of “I’m Called Little Buttercup” from the 1878 comedic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore.

Mom cannot be contained; her voice adhered to automatic pilot. She sings...

I'm called Little Buttercup — dear Little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why,
But still I'm called Buttercup — poor Little Buttercup,
Sweet Little Buttercup I!

In the movie, QV and her singing are cut off by her dastardly son, Bertie. In real life, poor Mom is cut off by me. I can tell her memory’s been tickled, and she’d like to share all the words she knows, but I shoot her “the look” and redirect her back to the big screen.  

Shortly after the Queen sings, there’s another scene where she dances with the Munshi. Mom’s hands jump to ballroom position and she is dancing with Munshi herself. And so it goes - until the end of the movie when QV dies and the Munshi returns to India.

All in all an entertaining, somewhat educational, movie, and an enjoyable Sunday afternoon with Mom. But hey! It’s only 6 pm. Mom, would you like to stay for another?

We settle on the runner-up of round 1 – Marshall. Like a time machine mash up, Marshall picks up where Victoria and Abdul left off. QE dies in 1901, and Thurgood Marshall is born in 1908.

The bulk of the film is set in the early 1930’s. Although never a jazz enthusiast, Mom smiles and shakes her “jazz hands” whenever the music plays. Despite brief moments of jazz-joy, I soon realize that this movie stimulates something other than Mom’s physical senses. It stirs her sensibilities and evokes memories filled with mixed emotions born from a difficult time in her adult life.

Although focusing on one particular trial, the broader message of the film Marshall is about equality and civil rights - and civil rights are Mom’s jam. In 1977 she co-authored The Black History Test with my father, educator and civil rights leader, Dr. Gregory C. Coffin. Thurgood Marshall was a regular topic of their daily discourse.

Throughout the movie, Mom offers brief commentary wherever appropriate, about protests, segregation, whites only; her fleeting comments coming from an abundant memory. This movie stirs her emotional center, and her feelings are evident in her facial expressions... not the joy and lightness of Queen Vicky and the Munshi, but the reality and resonance of personal experiences of a darker time.

(Spoiler Alert!) The end of the movie shows Marshall drinking from a “Whites Only” fountain, and then receiving a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. In classic Mom-mode, she says: Marshall only received a telegram from MLK, but your father received a letter!

Over the course of our four-hour film odyssey, Mom has had a kind of time travel adventure; not just in story but in sensory memory. She’s oohed and ahhhed, she’s laughed, she’s cried, she’s smiled.... and she’s remembered. She's not just watched the movies, she has actually participated in them.

Any time I can bring a little interest, fun, stimulation, or joy to Mom is a good time. But every once in a while, usually unknowingly and unwittingly, she has a great time. Back at her apartment next door, she pauses, looks me in the eye, and makes sure I hear her say - thank you for really great time.

Emily Gaffney