In my household, a loud crash will almost certainly be followed by a slightly slurred “I’m all right! I’m all! Right!” If something curious happens, my husband is bound to remark, “Well this is a very inneresting situation!” A compliment is always answered with a coquettish, “This old thing? Why, I only wear this when I don’t care how I look!”
No, we are not drunks or abusers of pharmaceuticals. Rather, we have seen the Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” far too many times. We can literally quote the entire movie by heart. Don’t ask me how I know this.
It is a tradition, in my Jewish family, to watch the film every year on Christmas. Just the opening credits are enough to make me crave Chinese food. I’ve probably seen this movie at least fifty times, no kidding. And yet with each viewing I cry, “No, Uncle Billy! Hold on to the money!” Whenever I hear Zuzu recite her famous concluding line, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” I cry. Every. Time. My husband and I have so completely assimilated IAWL into our consciousnesses that it now utterly transcends Christmas, and is quoted incessantly, even when it’s out-of-season as a Fourth of July fruitcake.
But why? Why this movie, and not “Christmas Vacation,” or “A Christmas Story,” or “The Hebrew Hammer”? I mean, does it reveal something about the fabric of my family that we all so strongly relate to the grouch malcontent who feels that he is inadequate at the life he never wanted anyway because he always suspected he was too good for it and was meant for something greater but that it’s okay in the end because he loves his spouse and family with a beautiful, soft-focus fervor? Mmmm maybe.
Then something happened that helped me to understand my love for IAWL and its sentimental hogwash. I read my daughter the picture book Knuffle Bunny for the 87 millionth time.
Every time we read this book and Trixie loses her bunny Harper looks very distressed and points to the tantruming toddler and says, quietly, “Sad.” And every time Trixie’s daddy extracts Knuffle Bunny from the laundromat washing machine Harper screams “BUNNY!!!!”, standing up and performing an ecstatic fist-pumping hora of celebration. The thing is, her concern and then subsequent celebrations seem to become more dramatic and elaborate with each reading.
Funny how stories can have that effect on you. How even when you know what’s going to happen there is something so cathartic, so soothing, about experiencing both the trouble and the resolution from the safe distance of observer. It’s like practice for real-life feelings, which is probably part of what I love so much about stories, why I always have at least a toe in one fictional world or another. As in, maybe if we just go through this cycle enough times in our imaginary worlds of choice then our emotional muscle memory will know what to do when the trouble is actually ours.
Confusion about what to do with one’s life, ambivalence about the roads not taken, money troubles, bunny troubles. We can all relate. And those who can’t…well they’re probably nothing but warped, frustrated old men.