A Love Letter To My Mother: The Beautiful Message of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’
To say that 2016 has been a rough year globally is akin to saying Nine Lives was a bad movie. It’s an understatement of massive proportions. In the United States alone we’ve had multiple mass shootings, contentious and sometimes fatal incidents between white police officers and black men, public climate change denials, and of course a bitter and vitriolic fueled Presidential election that led to a demagogue/reality T.V. star becoming President. In the entertainment and celebrity world there’s been an unending stream of significant deaths: David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin, Muhammad Ali–the list goes on and on. As Christmas grows closer, I’m reminded more and more of how trying this year has been. Not only from a global standpoint but also personally.
You see on July 16th of this year I lost my mother Sherrye M. Cook to ovarian cancer. She was 64 years old.
I’m not going to bring up the grief, the anger, and the suffering that my family experienced. Anyone who’s ever lost a loved one, especially to cancer, knows what that feels like. It’s gut wrenching. My Mom was a wonderful human being. I know that’s a cliché and rote thing to say. Hell it’s something that most people say about their mothers. However, it’s the God’s honest truth. No one could have asked for a better mother. She was kind, warm, generous to a fault, a devoted wife to my father Don, loving mother to my sister Kassidy and I, and above all a devout Catholic whose faith strengthened with each passing year.
Aside from Easter, my Mom’s favorite holiday was Christmas. She reveled in Christmas displays, everything from your standard tree to a strange calendar with a mouse wearing a Santa hat that you moved each day. Christmas music? Loved it. Christmas cookies? How many dozens and what kinds do you want? The gathering of friends and family on Christmas Eve always brought so much joy and peace to my Mother, that it inevitably energized everyone around her. Even the greenest of Grinches couldn’t help but be swept away by her Christmas Spirit.
And when it came to Christmas movies my Mom was an equal opportunity employer. She loved them all. Scrooged, A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Elf, and (also one of my favorites) 1951’s A Christmas Carol directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Yet the king of them all, the undisputed champ, the one movie that absolutely, positively had to be viewed at least once during the holiday season, was director Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. If we didn’t sit down to watch It’s a Wonderful Life at some point between the time Thanksgiving dinner dishes were cleaned and put away and when Christmas Eve began, then Christmas just wasn’t complete. It was like Santa sans reindeer.
It’s a Wonderful Life wasn’t just my Mom’s favorite Christmas movie. Capra’s classic was her favorite movie PERIOD. You could point to any number of reasons. It’s post-WWII sense of hope, Capra’s flawless direction, or even Jimmy Stewart’s “every man” performance as George Bailey fit the bill. There’s even a local connection. For those of you outside of the United States (or even within it) I live in Rochester, a city in Western New York. About an hour to the east of me is the small town of Seneca Falls, a place that Frank Capra visited in 1945. He went on to model It’s A Wonderful Life‘s fictional town of Bedford Falls after Seneca Falls. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I’ve always thought that that piece of local history made the film that much sweeter for my Mom.
****NOTE: SPOILERS BELOW FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM****
At his core George Bailey is a man who constantly does the right thing, even at an early age. George saves his brother Harry (Todd Karns) from drowning when he’s twelve and prevents his employer, pharmacist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) from accidentally poisoning a child after the death of his son. This continues later in life when George delays world travel after his father dies, and takes over the Building and Loan. After George marries Mary (Donna Reed) he ends up canceling his honeymoon and donates his own money to prevent a run on the bank. All of these actions, every single one, was indicative of the type of person George Bailey was–a selfless human being who put EVERYONE before himself.
My Mom admired George Bailey’s selflessness because he is the type of person she strove to be. I can’t tell you the countless times she sacrificed for my sister Kassidy and I to realize our goals, our dreams, to fulfill our happiness at the cost of her own. Not that my Mom lived an unfulfilled life. Far from it. She accomplished a lot both personally (traveled everywhere from Italy to the Caribbean) and professionally (earned a college degree all while working full-time and raising two kids). But she always wanted to give, whether it was her time, her talent, her treasure, or all three. Mom always said the goal in life is to get to Heaven and that meant living as Christ-like as possible. (Note: I’m not relaying this information to you to brag and I don’t want to imply here that my Mom was in any way perfect. People sometimes jokingly called her Saint Sherrye and she hated it. She’d be the first person to tell you she was far from perfect.)
When you look at It’s A Wonderful Life, one thing jumps out immediately. The film begins with a suicide attempt by George Bailey. How, bizarre is that?? After all this is a Christmas movie. And yet the scene somehow feels normal and not out-of-place, thanks to Capra and the narrative that unfolds. What drives George to desperation? After Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) has $8000 stolen by Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the Building and Loan faces bankruptcy and for George, maybe even jail time. Distraught, George ventures to a nearby bridge and contemplates suicide. Just before jumping in, angel second class (he hasn’t gotten his wings yet) Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) jumps into the river. George being the self-less person he is dives in after Clarence and saves him.
I’ve drawn a lot of comparisons between George Bailey and my Mother, but the one glaring difference is that my Mom was never suicidal, even at the darkest parts of her life. Life was too beautiful and too precious. She always said suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Yet she did feel sympathy towards people with depression issues including myself. She sought first to console rather than be consoled. Just like George would have done.
Now that my Mom has passed, the significance of George Bailey being shown what life would have been like if he’d never been born impacts me more than it ever did. Through Clarence, it’s revealed that without George, Harry would never have lived and never would have shot down a kamikaze pilot in WWII to save a transport. Without George Mr. Gower would have went to jail. Without George the Building and Loan would have failed. Without George Mary would have become a spinster. When I think of these scenes I’m reminded of the series finale of Quantum Leap and what Al the bartender tells Sam Beckett when he says how he didn’t want to help people one life at a time. Al tells him, “Well at the risk of inflating your ego Sam you’ve done more. The lives you touched, touched other lives, and those lives–others! You’ve done a lot of good Sam Beckett.” My mother did a lot of good in this world.
Thus far I’ve written extensively on why It’s A Wonderful Life appealed to my Mom. I think the most important message of the film is one that my Mom firmly believed in. It’s a beautiful message in its simplicity. And that message is this: YOUR LIFE MATTERS. Every action you take, every life you touch, every kind word, prayer, donation, hug–it all matters. Never belittle how much you mean to those around you or the influence you have because whether you realize it or not, it counts for something.
I’d like to close with a story my Mom told me once that best exemplifies the message of It’s a Wonderful Life. A man was walking along the beach and stretching out in front of him were hundreds of starfish all along the coast line. He could see that they were slowly dying as the sun mercilessly beat down upon them. And so without a second’s thought he began to throw them back into the sea. After awhile his friend came along and noticed what he was doing. He came up to his friend and said, “There are hundreds and hundreds of starfish along this coast. You can’t save them all. How do you expect to make a difference?” The man calmly picked up another starfish and threw it back into the sea. The man turned to his friend, smiled, and said, “I made a difference to that one.” That was my Mom all the way. Like George Bailey she made a difference.
Atta girl Mom.