In 1977, I begged my folks to take me to see Star Wars. My Dad didn’t go to movies (in fact, he didn’t do much of anything aside from work and buy groceries), but my Mother decided to take me.
It was maybe May or June of 1977. An ad for Star Wars was playing on TV and I was jumping up and down, saying “This is it! Can I go to see Star Wars?” I really lost my shit over it. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever been excited about anything the way the Star Wars movie had excited me. I wanted to see it so much, and I really wanted my Dad (family authority and sole car driver) to know how strongly I felt about it. The movie was new and exciting, and it was calling to me. I had to go.
Dad said something like he wasn’t interested in some space opera. I remembered that he listened to country music, and wasn’t into science fiction or fantasy or anything fun or imaginative. (However, I would recall years later how his eyes would light up a bit when he’d talk about physics or technology, or how he told me that as a kid, he used to enjoy those Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movie serials. Ironic.)
So, Dad didn’t take me to see Star Wars. But something really cool happened. My Mother took me.
I need to explain why this was such a big deal. Telling you the story of why requires that I tell you a bit of the recent history of my family up to this point.
My mother, Angela, had been an only child, and she had always been particularly close to her father – maybe even a bit dependant on him. Ever since her Mother died in 1971, Angela and her father probably needed each other more than ever. He lived in Victoria and she in Vancouver. In her heart, I believe that no man was as important to Angela as her Dad. This was probably obvious to my father James, and I suppose it would have grated on his pride and sense of authority. James didn’t consider himself second-best to anybody, living or dead.
But in 1977, Angela’s father did die, and a huge portion of her heart went down into the grave with him. Already a manic-depressive and an alcoholic, Angela slumped into a deep depression, never leaving the house, and spending most of her time either upstairs in her bed, or downstairs, laying on the couch with her back to us. Even in healthier days past, she’d never been all that communicative with my sister and me, and had never seemed suited to any degree of parenthood, but she became even more remote and non-commuicative after the loss of her beloved Dad. She gave up trying to have any kind of life, she gave up on interacting almost entirely, and gradually she gave up on eating as well.
She had succumbed to her own darkness, avoiding her family and even daylight itself. She’d get up during the night and raid the fridge to make a sandwich or to drink, or maybe she’d vomit in the bathroom sink (or on the carpet if she didn’t make it). It was no way to live. I think that Angela hated her life and was in the gradual process of trying to get out of it by drinking herself to death.
While all this was happening, my sister and I swallowed our worry, fear or dread, and did what our Dad seemed to do: walk around the problem, not talk about it, and try to make it seem inconsequential or even somehow normal. But it wasn’t normal at all. Angela’s darkness had her wrapped up tight.
So that’s why it was such a rare and delightful surprise to find myself walking with my Mum down Granvillle Street on that sunny day. She had put on makeup and white gloves to mask the colourful scars on her face and hands (the result of a terrible housefire while she was pregnant with me, about eleven years earlier), and she’d worn her pretty mink jacket, as if she were going to a Broadway premiere. She’d dusted off her class and self-respect for everyone to see, and I was so happy and proud to be with her that day.
We went into the Vogue Theatre, and sat down inside an audience that had an electric energy throughout it. Everyone was talking and the whole space buzzed and hummed with anticipation. The lights went down, and as the coming attractions played, a shower of ice and popcorn rained down from the balcony above us. I’d never seen anything like it before.
Then it was the movie! First the black screen, then BAM! Logo! Horns! Trumpets blaring! I was out of my mind. Mum was sitting right next to me, but for the next couple of hours, I was long gone in that galaxy far, far away. That one movie made all fantasy movies important for me in a new way. I wanted to escape from my home life into new, exciting and rewarding worlds whenever I could, and as often as possible, I would.
And maybe Angela wanted to escape too. As a little girl, she had loved The Wizard of Oz. She identified with Dorothy, and maybe she’d even fancied herself something of a Judy Garland. Under her sad scars from third-degree burns, Angela had once been movie star beautiful. In her youth, she’d sung and acted in local theatre in Victoria, and could play piano and violin with great skill. She had once been lively and beautiful, but always dogged by manic-depression and then alcoholism.
Maybe her connection to her father had been her compass bearing to happer, earlier times – glory days in another life, long ago and far away. As she got older and her life got unhappier, she wanted to escape, I suppose. Perhaps when Poppy died, she felt there’d never be any rescue for her. Maybe with that she wanted to die too, perhaps to even be with her father again. I will never know.
But for that one day, perhaps she saw a chance to escape in a happier way, to see a story that resembled a movie she’d loved as a kid. So, she escaped with her son, and took him to see Star Wars. It was the last thing we ever did together as Mother and Son.
A number of months later, Angela would succeed in drinking herself right to the edge of death, ruining her liver and suffering permanent brain damage. If she’d stayed home for 24 hours more, she’d surely have died in her bed. She did survive, but with permanent brain damage, a loss of years of memory, and a somewhat different personality than before. She was permanently transformed. Her next eighteen years were lived in a variety of hospitals and care homes, particularly Riverview, where she died in 1995.
This is why Angela getting up off the couch and dressing up to take me downtown was such a big deal. It was something I wanted, and although I’ll never know if she did it for me, it was probably something that she wanted too: an afternoon’s escape into fantasy heroics and ideals so that you could forget the dead-end darkness that waited for you back at home.
When I watch Star Wars, I see myself in Luke Skywalker. When I watch The Wizard of Oz, I see Angela Love in Dorothy Gale.