Monday, January 16, 2006

Hope Floats

I keep feeling guilty because there's this supposedly great divorce movie out there, The Squid and the Whale, which I still have not managed to see. I don't think it's even at the arts theater anymore, so it looks like I'm waiting for the DVD to show up at Blockbuster. It's cheaper that way anyway.

In the meantime, all the stuff I've been reading about it has got me thinking about my favorite divorce movie, Hope Floats. My mom rented this during my months of couch-zombie depression. I'm pretty sure she just saw Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr. on the cover and figured she couldn't go wrong. I bawled through the entire movie, not knowing what it was about and unprepared for the emotional impact. It's become one of my favorite movies for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Harry, whose only flaw in this movie is that he doesn't sing or play the piano for us. And every time I watch it, I think that I really ought to wear more skirts and dresses. (Then I look at the thermometer and remember that it's a movie set in hot, dusty, humid Texas, where I don't live. Hooray for pants.)

In this flick, Birdee (Sandra Bullock) and her daughter Bernice move back to mama's house in small town Texas after Birdee's husband runs off with her best friend. I can relate to little Bernice in this movie, who is just in first or second grade. She's a little dorky, but very spunky, and innocent in just the way children should be. Her innocence gets her in trouble though. When Bernice's dad tactlessly shows up at mama's funeral to get Birdee to sign divorce papers, Bernice sees him starting to leave and yells, "I'm coming with you, Daddy!" She runs upstairs and packs a bag, then races back down to his car. She throws her little bag into the trunk of his car when he opens it to put in his briefcase, only to have him pull it out and set it on the ground. When she tries to get in the passenger door, he locks the doors and starts to drive off. He's patient and calm through all this, oblivious to the devastation he's causing his child. Bernice bawls, "You want me! I know you want me!" but her dad drives off and leaves her there.

I always watch this scene in a kind of horror. I know what's going to happen and I sit there watching it, willing Bernice to stay on the porch with her mother and not run after him. I knew the first time I saw it what would happen and I cringe each time I see it again for all the sweet little Bernice's out there who are left weeping on the sidewalk.

My grandma made sure I knew that when I turned 12 or thereabouts I could choose which of my parents I wanted to live with. I knew, of course, that she wanted me to live with my dad, wanted to hear me say that I would choose him. But I also knew what Bernice was too young or innocent to know. I knew that my choosing my dad didn't matter nearly as much as him choosing me--and I knew he hadn't chosen me. Although it would be several years before I learned that the visits I had with him were paid for and initiated by my grandparents, I already knew that he was pretty happy with the arrangement that let me live somewhere else. I knew he loved me in some vague way, but it was a love that was content to sit on the perimeter and look on with mild interest from time to time.

I think that's what is so amazing for me about the biblical story of The Prodigal Son. I don't really relate to the prodigal, except in the most theological sense of being a sinful person by nature. I never rebelled and went off the deep end. I was a good, church-going, obedient kid for the most part. I've heard that a lot of children of divorce relate more to the father in the story, because they've seen their parents go off the deep end and offend the very moral principles they've brought their kids up to believe in. And I can relate to that to a certain extent. But the father in the story is still incredibly compelling to me. When he sees his kid coming down the dusty road (and, don't miss the fact that he sees him he's been watching anxiously for him), he runs to meet him! How different from Bernice's dad, locking the doors and driving off, indifferent. This dad runs to meet his child. That kind of father is very compelling to me. The kind who chooses his child, who runs with abandon to meet the child.

Of course, the story of Hope Floats doesn't end with Bernice weeping and abandoned. Birdee and Bernice get to see how hope rises from the ashes of their broken dreams and makes a new dream. As Birdee's mama says, "That's why they invented families--so hopeless wouldn't have the last word."

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