Mom loves On Golden Pond. And I have to admit it’s a great movie: Ten Oscar nominations; three wins, including Henry Fonda for best actor and Katharine Hepburn for best actress. But for me—now—it’s just a source of sorrow.
Mom and Dad were in their late fifties when it came out in 1981. Mom really wanted to see it. But Dad at first refused to go, then only went kicking and screaming: “that Communist traitor, Jane Fonda,” was in it.
Whether Dad was touched by the movie—or even enjoyed it—I never knew. Dad was always so stoic. But Mom loved the movie. She was the romantic.
But I do know that Dad got really annoyed when Mom watched it over and over after I gave them a copy of it for their anniversary one year. Of course, it was really a gift for Mom, but Dad didn’t care about gifts anyway.
She had just about worn out the VHS by the time the DVD version was released, so I bought her the DVD. I never suspected the problem it would create. But I later discovered that as she became increasingly sedentary, she would watch the movie several times a day.
One day, I stopped by Mom and Dad’s house on the way home from work one day to check on them. As I pulled into the driveway, I could see Dad putzing around in the garage. I sat and watched for a while. I liked to do that. As a child—and well beyond—I often resented my father’s aloofness, his lack of outward emotion, his coldness. But as he reached his eighties, along with the increase in irritability and cantankerousness came, ironically, wonderful moments of tenderness. He actually called me “Princess” sometimes.
And so I watched him with tenderness in my own heart.
But then I realized something was wrong. I could see he was agitated, talking to himself, gesturing.
I got out of the car and ran into the garage. “Dad, what’s wrong?
“Why does she call me “Norman?”
“Dad what are you tal—.” I stopped mid-syllable as I realized my father—my father—was crying!
“Dad! What is it?”
The story poured forth in a jumbled, confused manner. According to Dad, Mom had started calling him Norman. And she had started talking about things that he didn’t understand. Things that she expected him to know that he couldn’t remember.
What was he talking about? I had never heard her call him Norman. Was he imagining things?
But a few weeks later, I was there when it happened. She asked Dad to hand her a glass. But she called him Norman! The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
It didn’t take long for me to figure out what was going on. There are times when, in her mind, she is Ethel and he is Norman, the Golden Pond characters. Sometimes her voice even quivers like Katharine Hepburn’s.
As soon as I realized what was happening, I told Dad. I figured somehow it would make things better. But it didn’t. He got angry. “What are you talking about, On Golden Pond? What do you mean? Who’s Norman?” Then he cried again.
How can he not remember On Golden Pond? He used to rail against Mom incessantly watching it.
Then yesterday, Mom was going through some old newspapers. She wanted Dad and me to look at one from 2007. “This is so sad. It says here, Justice O’Connor retired from the Supreme Court so that she can spend more time with her husband who has Alzheimer’s. But when she went to visit him in the home, he was sitting there holding some other woman’s hand. And he didn’t know who Justice O’Connor was, but he said the other woman was his girlfriend.”
Mom slowly shook her head. “It’s sad when people don’t even know each other anymore, isn’t it Norman?”
And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. Rev. 21:4 (NASB).
“Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it. You’re going to get back on that horse, and I’m going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we’re gonna go, go, go!"—Katharine Hepburn as Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond.
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