When I saw the documentary, 51 Birch Street, for the first time at SXSW 2006 in Austin, Texas, I sat, utterly mesmerized through the entire film. Although I was at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater, and had a hot pizza and glass of wine on the ledge in front of me, I did not reach for either, and did not miss them. I watched. Studied? Wondered. Found myself ensnared in the threads of a story that could be mine. Or might be yours. Is probably all of ours if we are honest with ourselves.
In late January of 2004, only 10 days after her 84th birthday, my grandmother unexpectedly passed away in her sleep. Always, vibrant and very social, she had enjoyed a night out with friends, including a man she had known since 4th grade, but never dated until after my grandfather passed away in 2001. “Dated” is probably a stretch. They “kept company”. Elmer had had a stroke and was wheelchair bound, but that did not keep them from going out with friends, or even from taking an overnight trip with a group (they stayed in separate bedrooms… that was made clear to us upon their return). I never knew about my grandmother’s friendship with Elmer until after my grandfather left us… and then it was proven with a Valentine from 4th grade, love letters from junior high, more photos from parties long ago, and more recent cards, letters and gifts. They had had separate, happy lives with families they loved, and re-discovered each other many years later when it was possible for them to be together. Some might say that was good timing. My grandparents were together for more than 50 years. Elmer and my grandmother had a happy 18 months together.
I was devastated by my grandmother’s death. The last time I spoke to her, was to let her know I’d see her in 3 days to have lunch with her and my father. She seemed to be okay… maybe a little tired, and said she might have plans, so I didn’t need to worry about including her. She told me she loved me. Two days later… the day before I was to go have lunch with her, my father called to tell me she’d “left us”. He found her in her bed at noon, curled up, as though still sleeping. None of us got to say good-bye. And she probably would have preferred it that way. But there were so many questions I had wanted to ask her.
I had wanted to ask her. I meant to ask her. I should have asked her. I didn’t ask her. Why she and my grandfather (who was really my step-grandfather) never had children even though my father was only 5 when they married. How my grandfather courted her. What it was like during the war. Was she really happy in their later years when they no longer played bridge, or went out with the “Wild Bunch” (the group they had traveled with for years) because my grandfather had had a stroke which made it difficult for them to go out. Was she ever lonely? I wish she had kept journals so I would know some of those things.... but she didn’t.
Mr. Block’s movie reminded me of so many things I had wanted to ask her.... and made me curious about my own parents… who divorced when I was 19. I can remember much of what their marriage was like, and how it affected my childhood, some of it was fine, but a lot of it, I’d just as soon forget. My mother has kept a journal for more than 30 years. I would never dare to look at it. I know there is stuff in there that I do not want to know. She keeps her personal writing in large binders, carefully dated, and filled to bursting with scraps of things from her life, and mine, and my brother’s… and now, my stepfather’s, too. I wonder how those writings will be handled one day when she “leaves us”. Will we read it? Who will take possession? How will memories, renewed from her perspective, affect my brother and me, and my children? I am a curious person, an obsessive researcher, interested in most things new, and unusual, with a voracious appetite for the tantalizing, but I have no desire whatsoever to know what’s in my mother’s journals. I think there’s a part of me that thinks, perhaps mistakenly, that while my grandmother left me with no answers, my mother will leave me with all the answers.... and I am more afraid of those answers than I am afraid not to know.
51 Birch Street was a reminder that the time to ask questions is now… if you are brave enough to do so. Doug Block’s family isn’t mine… and it isn’t even remotely like mine in most ways. But in some fundamental ways, it is exactly like mine. There are the things you “just don’t talk about”. The things one assumes everyone else in the family knows, but no one really knows at all…. There are memories skewed by time, and fictionalized by the various characters involved, because each experienced the same thing in a different way. With the help of priceless home movies, his mother’s writings, and interviews with family members, Mr. Block, has managed to capture aspects of a Universal Family… and his family became mine… and maybe yours… maybe all of ours… if we are honest with ourselves.
51 Birch Street is now screening in a limited release in a number of cities around the country. October 11th it will be in Austin, Texas again for the first time since SXSW 2006. I’ll be there to see it again. If you missed it during the festival, try to catch it when it comes back. You may discover pieces of your family in the broken pieces of Block’s.