When Saturday Night Is Enough

My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.

My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).

And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.

I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.

I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head  I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:

Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister.  What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.

When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).

Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).

I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!

But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?

“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.

Just us.

I look for what’s missing.

My daughter sees what’s there.

I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.

And Emmy needs me.

And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.

Next week, Working Girl.

Just us.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: The Silence of the Lambs

There is simply no way to overstate how enraptured I am by Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. I have read the book six times. I have seen the Jonathan Demme movie more times than I can count, and have bought it on every available format, including laser disc*. I saw the musical twice. I own the soundtrack. I have a t-shirt with Precious on it (she’s pictured in her basket). I never, ever miss the opportunity to make a “It rubs the lotion on its skin” joke, and I once described a co-worker I dislike as being “courteous and receptive to courtesy,” at which my husband, Jonathan, asked if I was quoting Hannibal Lecter on purpose. In fact, I was not, I was just talking and Hannibal Lecter came out. And while there is an argument to be made that Michael Mann’s Manhunter is a far better film and Brian Cox the superior Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs will never lose its allure and power for me, because of Clarice Starling.

jodiefoster_thesilenceofthelambs

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. I immediately got that haircut and bought that blazer.

I was 21 when The Silence of the Lambs opened on Valentine’s Day in 1991, a college senior in a tiny town in upstate New York. My plans at the time included surviving my last snowbelt winter, graduating in May, and then moving to New York City to work in the theatre and live with my boyfriend. All of this terrified me. I loved the theatre but had no real idea how to launch a career with no contacts, no professional experience, and a BA from a SUNY college that, while excellent, wasn’t the famous School of the Arts one. I was sad and anxious all the time, which turned out to be an undiagnosed depression that got much worse before it got better. And though I couldn’t admit it to anyone, especially myself, my boyfriend wasn’t very good to me.

I felt powerless in those days. Unable to define what I wanted, and even if I could figure it out, incapable of creating it for myself. I worked hard to please my professors, smiled enthusiastically for my parents, agreed to whatever my boyfriend proposed. But I felt like I was choking all the time. Not metaphorically. It felt like I had a golf ball in my throat, always. Like I couldn’t breathe.

And then Clarice ran into my life, in her FBI Academy sweats.

She was damaged. She was tormented. She had so much to prove. And yet, she was so incredibly courageous. Not fearless, not by a long shot, but courageous. She knew what was at stake, she knew the dangers, and she ran towards them, gun drawn.

Clarice Starling was a revelation, with her skill and intelligence, her vulnerability, her flaws, her perfect bob haircut. She seemed nearly divine, like Theseus, braving the labyrinth, killing the monster, rescuing the innocent. Like Artemis, protector of young girls. Like Demeter, fighting to save her daughter from the Underworld.

She didn’t save me — I moved to New York, married the boyfriend who wasn’t kind to me, continued to spiral out, and had a rather spectacular emotional breakdown when the marriage disintegrated — but she became a touchstone, a reference point for determination, for resiliency, for sheer guts, for holding my own in the company of people where I feel terribly out of place. It isn’t uncommon for me to invoke her, still, when my backbone needs stiffening, telling myself that if Clarice Starling can walk down that scary-ass hallway in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to talk to Lecter and then get covered in Miggs jizz, if she can shrug off her adorable coat, pull her weapon, and descend into Buffalo Bill’s horror basement to rescue Catherine Martin, then I can ask for a raise, stand up to an arrogant colleague, and figure out how to get my daughter into a good New York City middle school.

And I always remember to check my corner.

If you’re familiar with how Clarice’s story unfolds after The Silence of the Lambs, you know that she and Lecter end up together , as a romantic couple, at the conclusion of the novel Hannibal. Many fans, critics, and Jodie Foster herself, were deeply disturbed by this, thinking it was a betrayal of Clarice’s goodness, her fundamental decency. But I always thought it rang true, that the darkness in Lecter reached for her light, that he was a broken creature she could try to save, the ultimate lamb in the night. The marriage of the Divine Mother and the Dark Lord. It’s twisted, but the older I get the more I wonder, what great love isn’t, somehow? And in the end, it is worth noting that Harris makes sure to tell us it is possible that Clarice Starling could frighten Hannibal Lecter. As well she should.

hannibal

You’re right, Clarice, I do load the dishwasher like a rube. I’m sorry. I’ll do it your way from now on.

Which brings us to the question, what should you eat while you watch The Silence of the Lambs? I suggest liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone, which is what Hannibal dines upon in the book (Chianti, even a nice one, being too pedestrian for his refined tastes, I imagine). Or you could follow the example of Clarice’s flirty bug expert, Dr. Pilcher, and have a cheeseburger and beer, or the amusing house wine.

*I have never met the creator of this video, but I suspect she is the sort of person I would have bonded with immediately at sleep-away camp.

Read What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: Blue Valentine.

Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or tweet me at @stefgunning and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!

What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: Blue Valentine

Today marks the debut of a new feature here on the blog, called “What should I eat while I watch that movie?” These aren’t movie reviews or re-caps, per se, although I will tell you what I thought of the movie, because talking about movies is a thing I love to do. Mostly it’s a helpful guide to pairing drinks, food and the occasional prescription drug along with a film, either to enhance the experience of watching it or to soothe yourself from the emotional fallout.

NOTE: SPOILERS! THERE WILL BE SPOILERS! Most of the movies we’ll be covering here are at least a couple of years old, so I’m going to assume you’ve already seen them or heard about them.

***

blue-valentine

Released in 2010 and starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine is a nearly forensic examination of the dissolution of a marriage. It is so realistic, so achingly true to the way things between people can fall apart, how love can twist in on itself and we can hurt and disappoint each other, that it actually makes you want to NOT marry Ryan Gosling.

I am certain there are people who live lives of contentment. People who look around at the things they’ve chosen and think, “Perfect. This is EXACTLY what I meant.” But for the rest of us, it’s not so simple. Life has a way of letting us down, we have a way of letting ourselves down, in ways large and small. Missed opportunities, a litany of what-ifs? Irredeemable mistakes. All those could haves and should haves and might have beens. Maybe things won’t ever fall apart for us as spectacularly as they do for the couple in Blue Valentine (let’s hope not), but to watch it is to see all our small concessions and compromises and disappointments writ large. And it hurts.

And so you ask, “What should I eat while I watch Blue Valentine?”

The answer is, a large bowl of buttered noodles and a Klonopin. If noodles aren’t your thing, you can substitute a large bowl of farina with butter, milk and salt. The Klonopin, however, is non-negotiable.

Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or send me an email at stefanie.gunning@gmail.com and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!