December 20, 2012

A Sad Little Christmas Story


This is a disappointing and sad Christmas story. It didn’t have to be, but it just turned out that way. For some reason one simple, uneventful comment issued on Christmas Day forever changed my relationship with my mother-in-law.

On the outside it didn’t look that way, conversation continued for years with its normal banter. There were hugs and kisses, but deep within the sinews of my soul, I felt a detachment and deep disappointment with this famous lady. This woman who, in her youth, had played in films a sweet, innocent, delicate beauty. She was a legend, an Academy Award winning star of many distinguished films. Hitchcock adored her; William Wyler showered praise upon praise upon her. She was greeted with accolade after accolade, a star from her very early youth. And yet despite this applause there lay in her heart a deep fissure that was never healed between me and the life I had lived, and she, the life she had known as a child.

Teresa Wright was born in the early part of the 2oth century and grew up in Maplewood, NJ. Her mother left (abandoned) her at birth, and she was raised poor by her father, a traveling salesman. She gravitated towards theater in high school, and by the time she was 18 she had been discovered and on her way to a distinguished career.

It happened on Christmas Day, many years ago, when we were sitting comfortably around a fire opening Christmas Presents in our small house on the Connecticut shore. As usual, I don’t remember what preceded it, but what I do remember is as follows.

Teresa turned to me and said, “How could anyone with your background have any problems.” This seems, in retrospect, a fairly harmless comment, but it was filled with metaphor and distain. Her husband confronted her and said that was a ridiculous comment. Just because one has privilege in their youth, doesn’t mean that privilege can’t nurture severe emotional problems. In fact, in many cases the privilege may cause more problems than it alleviates. But Teresa held her ground and looked at me as if I would never know what true hardship was.

This simple comment felt like an outright dismissal, whether correct or incorrect, of my longstanding struggle for independence. This comment also felt like a rejection of any accomplishments I was able to achieve distinct from my parents honors. And finally it lessened all the suffering and my near total emotional breakdown that had occurred over my struggles with my past. ¬†Although, this simple comment which with the passage of time doesn’t feel as powerful as it did then, these fleeting words still to this day feel somewhat like a window into my mother-in-laws true feelings about me and my past.

In the years that followed, in one way or another, it became clear that my background, despite the extreme financial hardships of the present were this rift between us.

So this sad little story ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. This celebrated film star, who had success ladened upon success from her teenage years, could never outlive her the anger she still felt from early childhood. Nor could this photographer who then lived close to the poverty line, ever escape the background he was struggling so hard to live past.

As Teresa had gone from poor to rich, and I from rich to poor, you would have thought our paths might have meet somewhere in the middle. But alas, the baggage we each carried was simply too heavy to bear.

Merry Christmas. See you next year.



  1. thank you for the story and Merry Christmas and See you next year :)
    i’m not so often visit your website, but it always in front my eyes, it warms me and time after time i read yours stories.
    So, thank you and again Merry Christmas

    Comment by katya — December 21, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  2. I have that same Life Magazine in my collection.

    I think her comment was hurtful, but rather than treat it as the simple human remark that it was, you invested it with an undeserved gravity and importance. You inflated her importance, because of her career, and denigrated your own.

    You might have spoken back to her. Told her she was full of shit. She might have liked that. She played gentle women on screen, but maybe (you know better than I) she was tough, hardened, and battle hardened.

    Comment by Andy — December 21, 2012 @ 11:03 am

  3. I came back to this story because of the Life magazine cover which struck me as disturbing.

    This time around I looked at each side of the face separately. On the right side, as I view the image, the lighting has suppressed detail and shaping, giving her an angelic look.

    The left side appears more sinister, partially my own bias against this kind of lighting that casts a nose shadow sideways and with an upward angle.

    This may be more telling of myself than of her character.

    But your story illustrates how easily, what appears to be a casual remark, can injure.

    And finally, can we really interpret the true intention of any comment?

    All the best in 2013

    Comment by Raymond St Arnaud — December 26, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

  4. How heart-breaking. I am sorry that you endured that. Your MIL had prejudiced herself against you before giving herself an opportunity to really get to know you as a human being. I hope this past Christmas served as a nice contrast to that hurtful evening.

    Comment by Leah — December 30, 2012 @ 2:24 am

  5. …and remember this was a woman who fell in love and wanted to marry a man simply because he kissed her for a few seconds after lunch in front of a large gas storage tank.

    Comment by Andy — February 27, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

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