I have seen the film The Family Stone a number of times despite it really being a mediocre, at best, film. First of all, it was one of those films wherein the trailer essentially lied about its plot. To watch it, you would think it was a slapstick comedy of hijinks and tomfoolery surrounding a family get together at Christmas. What it is in reality is a mostly depressing film about a bunch of self-important adults who, through the course of the film, behave poorly. Oh, also, one of them dies from cancer after Christmas. Funny, right?
So I couldn’t help but wonder why every time this film came on cable it drew me in such that I would it to its completion. After a few views I started to think about it. Why was I watching this anything but uplifting portrait of yuppie dissatisfaction?
One aspect was easy: it was filmed in and around my beloved hometown of Madison, New Jersey. There are those handful of readily identifiable locations like Waverly Place and Drew University that always tugged at my heartfelt nostalgia during their brief appearances on screen. But most of the film takes place inside a “could be anywhere” house. I will watch The World According To Garp if it’s near the assassination scene and I will even stomach Guess Who if it’s near the end. Rich and Famous isn’t exactly in heavy rotation on TV these days but if that one episode where Tony takes Meadow to look at schools came on, I would certainly watch The Sopranos. But when it comes to this film, I find myself watching the whole damn thing.
And the thing of it is, it isn’t even the Madison scenes that I find myself enjoying the most. It is this collection of random moments: a car turning into the snowy driveway of the family home, the family gathering around the dinner table (before it turned awful and uncomfortable, anyway), Christmas morning when they started opening presents (again, before it turns awful and uncomfortable.) There are countless films that feature families at Christmas that don’t hold the sway over me that this one does (though, to be fair, Christmas Vacation I will watch at any time, anywhere.)
What I have finally deduced is simply this: it is the combination of a family Christmas and Madison that pulls me in each time. More than that, it is the fact that this movie represents what I really wish I could have but never will be able to.
We used to live in a big house not that much different from that one in the movie. We had a circular driveway not that much different from the movie. We used to have big family Christmases not that much different from the movie. Well, to be fair, while that made for nice repetition, not once did my fiancée break-up with me in the living room in the middle of opening presents and end up sleeping with my brother. We did have Christmases there, though.
In the end, we used to have those Christmases that the characters in this movie would have had as children, but we can never have them as adults. Our house, our driveway, our dining room — they all now belong to someone else. My parents sold our house some fifteen years ago when they went and got a divorce.
That they chose to do it after thirty years of marriage is to me, at some level, baffling. Everyone knows the shorthand statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce. Most also know that the statistics tell you a huge chunk of those end before three years. Once you get past fifteen years, the numbers are very small. The numbers are also smaller for college educated couples, couples with children, couples with higher median incomes, and couples who are over 45-years-old.
In addition to those thirty years of marriage, my parents also had three college degrees, five children, one more-than-ample salary, and were both over 50. They were nothing if not a statistical oddity.
At the same time, the announcement of their impending divorce didn’t exactly come as a galloping shock and it probably should have come sooner than it did. I will in no way try to diagnose what went wrong. There are those rabbit holes that you just don’t go down and that certainly, for me anyway, is one.
What The Family Stone represents is what their divorce took away from my brothers and me. I don’t know if they care but I know I do. It took away a chance for me to share my childhood with my children. It took away that opportunity for me to go “home” periodically and put Maggie to bed in the bedroom I used to sleep in. It took away the chance for me to play in the same backyard with Henry that I used to play in. It took away the chance for me to pull into that snowy driveway and unload a car full of presents and children and take them in to the warm confines of a house owned by The Family Hook.
My wife grew up in Maine and it is a place that we return to three or four times a year. We stay in the house once owned by her grandparents in Winter Harbor and surely stay in some of the same bedrooms she did as a child. We take the same ferry out to Swans Island that she did throughout her life. We camp in the same yards, climb the same hills, and walk the same roads she did. Every trip to Maine is filled with one opportunity after another for Amy to point and say, “That’s something I did when I was your age.”
Neither of my parents lives anywhere near Madison any longer. We see one or the other of them regularly. In a way, this isn’t really about them. My kids get to experience their grandparents just fine. It is about that impossible to recreate experience of sharing with them my own youth. If I had grown up abused and unhappy, this would be the entirely appropriate approach. I would put that sort of childhood behind me and make sure that they never needed to know about it. But I had an exceedingly happy and fortunate childhood. We lived in a nice house in a nice town and it was downright idyllic. That’s why they film movies there.
The last time we were in Madison it was literally for less than ten seconds. We were on a road trip of one sort or another and driving on route 24. Not “old 24” that doubled as Main Street, Madison, but the newer modern route 24 of the superhighway variety that cuts through one little corner. It is depressed into the land such that you don’t actually see anything recognizable or distinctive, but there is a sign that says simply “ENTERING BORO OF MADISON.” Then, two bland overpasses later, just a few hundred yards down the road, another reading “ENTERING BORO OF FLORHAM PK.”
I was nonetheless excited to share with Maggie and Henry that this is where I grew up. How confusing it must have been.
I was also immediately depressed that a stretch of ugly highway is what I get to give my children while my wife gives them beauty of downeast Maine. At least they get the beauty of downeast Maine.
There is nothing that says that, had my parents stayed together, that they’d still be in New Jersey either. I got to know both sets of my grandparents in locales (Florida and Alabama) well removed from where they raised my parents (Ohio and New York State.) But, apart, there was no chance.
It also can’t be solved with a visit to walk around my elementary school or to buy an ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins (if it is still there.) The repeated trips to Maine make it a part of my children’s ongoing lives the way New Jersey will never be.
To be clear, I am not angry with my parents. I do not blame them for the choices they made. I believe they were inevitable and required. I am nonetheless saddened by it all. Just as you don’t blame someone for dying too young, I don’t blame their marriage for ending too soon. Both are still profound losses.
It could have been worse. Had it come earlier it would have deprived me of part of my own childhood rather than just the ability to share it with my kids. Had it come later, they would have continued to be unhappy. They are both happier now than they ever would have been still together. I get that.
You hear of people who stay together “for the children” (which, for the record, I can hardly imagine is ever really a successful plan.) My older brothers and I were out of college when my parents announced their separation and, as adults, were probably past that stage of being, you know, children. Even my little brothers were in the later stages of high school or early part of college. No, the children that are affected by this divorce at this point are one generation down. Like an inheritance that “generation skips” so too is this divorce.
I don’t know; maybe I am making too much out of the whole thing. It is not as though my kids have ever or will ever know anything different. For the vast majority of the time I don’t even think about it. Imagining my parents together now is nearly impossible. It’s been those fifteen some odd years since they went their separate ways but actually feels much longer. It’s hard to remember them any other way.
All I know is that I cannot provide for my kids their history in the same way that my wife can. Every time get in the car and drive five hours north instead of five hours south, they get another glimpse into the places that made her her. There are no such glimpses for me.
Or perhaps there are? Yes, of course, back to that movie. The Family Stone is the tiniest glimpse into what a Hook Family Christmas might have resembled if given the chance to exist into the next generation. Such as it is, I start from scratch and hope that one day my children will be able to bring their children home to share with them what I am unable.
I feel your pain, But at least you can drive past the house or even knock on the door and talk to the current owners and maybe get a tour. Across the street, where I grew up, the house was set on fire by Madison Fire department, so they could practice, before tearing it down to build an McManison.
great post, sir. i’m a child of divorce, too, and can completely relate to what you say here. while i don’t have kids yet, i’ve always wondered how i’m going to show my kids about my past, should those children actually come to fruition. i absolutely relate on that whole stretch-of-route-24 thing. for me it’ll be driving down route 6 pointing out random spots in marion and mattapoisett.
but you’re right – these things happen for a reason, even if it doesn’t always make sense to us… and it’s hard to stay upset at our parents for making these decisions. you guys will make your own traditions and you’re already doing the best you can, along with amy, to carry on what’s most important.
Marshall. I loved this post. Thanks.
Great stuff, Marshall!
When I see certain movies, it makes me wonder what an “idealic’ Christmas would have looked like in our house as well. also, although it is where my parents grew up, i get the same nostalgic feeling whenever I visit my Aunt in the Fall River area. Great memories of family trips down there to see my grandparents from when i was a little kid, through roughly my late teenage years.