As a younger mother I imagined quality time with my daughters. We’d be traipsing over a bridge shouting at gulls, smelling the sea air, picking fresh berries, singing Joni Mitchell…such beautiful ideas, but I was working full time building an artisan food business. I was energized by that, but it was also exhausting and a major time-suck, especially on weekends and holidays. Weekdays we had dinner as our anchor, but the weekends were tricky. The reality was that quality time came when we could catch it, and I was too tired to conceive of throwing together a picnic and a box of blankets for the 40 minute drive to the beach. Failure. Failure on the memory-creation front. Epic fail on culture and exposure to Stimulating Things. Fail. Fail. Fail.
And then like an angel I heard Ty Burr on NPR talking about his book The Best Old Movies for Families. Mr. Burr is the film critic for the Boston Globe, and wrote this book to help parents choose old movies that would engage their children. Mr. Burr’s premise is simple: don’t dumb down movies for your children. Start with the right ones, make thoughtful explanations, watch them together, and they’ll be hooked. You’ll be saved from watching Finding Nemo twice a weekend for months on end, and your kids will see a wider view of what movies can offer us.
I’ve become a bit of a fanatic about this book, in part because I’m not a player. Meaning I don’t like playing with my children, or anyone else’s, really. (I like BEING with them, don’t get me wrong.) I’ll hold a baby, I’ll prep the healthy snacks, but please don’t make me sit on the ground and move little wooden monkies around. I don’t much like games, either, unless they are trivia or word games, and what fun is it to play Trivial Pursuit with a 6 year old? “Wrong! The answer was the Berlin Wall! I win again!”
What I do love, though, is coziness. I love making tea for the girls and opening a good bottle of Paso red for my husband and me and hunkering down in the living room. There came a time when the girls were younger when that meant they would watch what they wanted, and I would either sit and read, or we grown ups would be in the other room. That was probably fine for the girls, but I craved time with them, to just be in the same room with them and the smell of their hair and the way they left their mouth open a little when really engaged. I didn’t want to play barbies with them, so what? But playing Audrey Hepburn movies for them? This we could do.
The book starts with a 5 movie starter plan, and gives you brief explanations as to why the movie is a good choice or what parts you’ll want to pause and explain. Once you know your kids respond to the original Robin Hood, you can then find other movies like it that should float their boat. We started when my younger daughter VeeVee was 5, which was a bit young, but her sister was nearly 8, and like so many other times as a younger sis, she was kind of along for the ride. I knew she was all in when she said “Can we watch Spotty-cus (Spartacus) tonight?”
The added bonus to “Best Old Movies for Families” is that I hadn’t seen most of the films. “Bringing up Baby,” “The African Queen,” “The Ten Commandments”…nearly everything we watched was a first time for me as well, and we were all engaged at the same level, instead of me passively looking up occasionally while working on my weekly to-do list. We started seeing the same actors in multiple roles. (“That’s the guy who played Harvey!” or “I loved her in Meet Me in St. Louis.”) We started (and I’m including my husband and I in this) to get references that were lost on us before. I found out I actually like musicals. We had fun. And lots of popcorn with m&ms in the bottom of the bowl. We sat in silent awe at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We fell in love with Audrey, over and over. We created lingo: “pause for the cause” means we pause the movie for snack/restroom break, always waiting to watch until we are all back in place around the t.v. We were together, in the same room, for hours and hours, over years and years.
We’ve been pulling movies from that book for 6 years, finally graduating to the Tweener list peopled with James Dean and juicy, evil Bette Davis. We’ve had the girls’ friends over for Hitchcock. We pull together, in the same room, for this little spot of quality time. And though I’ve never taken a picture of the four of us sprawled over the couch and chairs, the debris of bowls and blankets and half-drunk mugs of tea surrounding us, I know it will always be there as a mental snapshot of true happiness with my three favorite people.