Monday, June 8, 2009

My Pretty Faces

Watched On Golden Pond with Corrine yesterday, a movie I have spotted in our collection from time to time but skip over deliberately. There are certain types of movies that illicit fear when I think of them.

Movies about cancer, particularly (Terms of Endearment, for example) and then there's On Golden Pond, the story of a curmudgeonly Norman Thayer and his wife Ethel, who own a camp on Golden Pond in Maine.

It's a movie about death, and the inevitability of the ends of things we love. Throughout we see images of decay and death: the screen door that has come off it's hinges; Ethel's wooden doll, Elmer, who took a nose-dive off the mantel and into the fireplace; the death of Miss Appley, the 90-year-old "lesbian"; and of course the loons. The loons are a constant symbol of lifelong companionship and when one is found dead during a fishing excursion, it becomes a symbol of the eventual demise of Norman and Ethel's companionship.

We don't see anyone die. Not like in Terms of Endearment, which has that horrible scene in the hospital when Emma Horton's children come to say good bye.


On Golden Pond has a different effect on me than the cancer movies. On Golden Pond is about a camp, on a lake, and a couple who have lived and loved for many years, but who now are faced with not having that anymore.

One of the more poignant scenes comes early when Ethel sends Norman out to pick strawberries and he gets lost at the end of their lane, a lane in a wooded thicket he has visited a million times before.

He manages to find his way back eventually, and when Ethel presses him on why he came back so damn quickly, he explodes.

Do you want to know why I came back so fast with my little bucket? I got to the end of our lane and I ... couldn't remember where the old town road was. I went a little way into the woods, and nothing looked familiar, not one tree. And it scared me half to death. So I came running back here, to see your pretty face, and to feel that I was safe. That I was still me.

I get all choked up when he gets to that part. Every time. Because I feel it for him. This bent old man hobbling down a wooded lane, looking for the pretty face he's known his whole adult life, his safe harbor. The one that makes him feel that he is still himself.

The thing is, there's a lot going on here, for me anyway. I suppose that's what makes fiction so powerful. You can relate to the really good stories on multiple levels.

There's the fact that my parents, who turn 70 this year, are celebrating their 50th this Saturday. They are Norman and Ethel, just younger. And by no means is either of them close to retiring from this earth. But, they will not go on forever. They will come to the end of their own lane at some point, and not turn back to hurry home.

Then there's a couple I knew who actually had a summer camp, on Hogan Pond, and whose son was and still is my best friend. I used to spend a lot of time at that camp, and it is as close to the Thayer's in its rusticity as is possible. We boated, we swam, we listened to the pine needles tapping on the roof.

Fran and Larry, the couple who owned the camp, saw their companionship come to an end with the death of Fran this past winter. She was barely in her 60s. I spoke to Ted, their son, recently who mentioned opening up the camp for the season. The first one in Ted's life without his mother. The first one for Larry without his wife's pretty face. And it was a pretty face. For many of us.

And then there is my own mortality. It's a ways off, I would hope, but it is there nonetheless. Like for all of us. And it isn't the end part I fear. Because when it comes, I won't know. Not consciously. What I fear is the notion - the one presented in the story - of something beautiful ceasing to exist.

It's a heady reality. An idea that shakes me up: of all those strings of my life falling away - the ones that connected me in a thousand ways to beautiful things. Pretty faces all.


  1. See, I see that movie as a tribute to forever love. Through thick and thin..sickness and health. Norman & Ethel. Fran & Larry. Art & Alice. Corrine & Andrew.
    They will all see the end together. Fall in love. Raise a family. See ebbs and flows. All standing the test of time. It is a movie about mortality. BUT, death after truly living! Living and REALLY loving and being loved right back!!

    June 8, 2009

  2. The tension in that movie between the father and daughter was palpable for me. Whatever you do, don't watch Big Fish; I bawled like a baby, and that was before my dad had passed away.

  3. I've always loved this movie and for the very reasons you've described, though I don't think I could ever explain it so well as you have done here. I think the other thing that drew me in was Ethel's certainty - about her marriage and about her family, in spite of the fact that as desperately as her husband and daughter each needed her, they seemed to repel from one another. Yet she seemed to remain confident that it would all work out in the end even after years of struggle between the two people she loved most. I've always been in awe of that kind of certainty.

  4. I fear a slow death.

    And... I try to stay away from serious movies. I read the newspaper. This is sad enough for me.

  5. OMG....this post just tore me up...probably in part due to pregnancy hormones, but still...beautifully written. But I can tell you as someone who lost my best friend two year ago to cancer...not all the strings fall away. The love remains.

    Thanks for sharing...oddly I have never seen either one of these movies (although I'm very familiar with their plots) --I think I know how much they'll make me cry and avoid them. But maybe now I'll watch them. After the hormones settle down. :)