I have been thinking about Gloria. The one in the movie, not the one in the song. The one who saves a six-year-old Puerto- Rican boy after his family is slaughtered by gangsters. Gina Rowlands plays her in the original. In a revision more people have seen, Gloria becomes a guy played by Jean Reno and the little boy becomes a girl played by Natalie Portman. This film is titled Leon, the Professional (1994) and is directed by Luc Besson. In this version, Leon sacrifices his own life to save the girl and leaves all his savings to her to insure her future. Gloria, like our Saint Mary, saves the life of the boy, whose name is Phil but is most often identified as Kid, by becoming his mother. Not as old as Isaac’s mother, to be sure, but past the age for child birth, this pistol-packing, foul-mouthed, former mistress of a wise guy, saves a boy, not nearly as cute as Natalie Portman, takes him from a cemetery no less and gives him the possibility of life. Yes that Gloria. John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980).
I watched Gloria a couple of times recently. I had seen it before, but I never tire of it. I also watched a number of other similar movies: Leon, which pulls all the right heart strings, Sydney Lumet’s pale remake of Gloria (1999) with Sharon Stone, and Man on Fire (2004), Tony Scott’s slick story with Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning. I watched all these movies because a documentary on Cassavetes started me thinking about the power of this story line of a child being saved by a hard-nosed character who, from all evidence, never wanted to be a mother or father. And how that act in a sense “saves” the adult as well as the child, even if the adult dies in the process.
Stories about children whose lives are at stake are powerful, so powerful that when they turn really ugly as in movies such as Lilya 4-Ever (2002), where a Russian woman leaves her teenage daughter to fend for herself while she escapes to the United States to be a bride, and Thirteen (2003), a painful story of a young girl coming of age too early, they are among the very few movies that can drive me out of the theater. I managed to last to the end of Nobody Knows (2004), a Japanese film about a family of abandoned children who struggle to make out on their own, but I am not sure how. Still, it is, apparently, the redemption I am after, and I may not be the only one.
What is it about our lives, I wonder, that makes adults today love these redemptive movies so much? Do we see ourselves so hardened, corrupted, and inexperienced in love that we identify with these hard-luck cases who find their hearts only through the innocence of a child? Or do these children, who are unable to save themselves, make our own sense of helplessness palpable while giving us a certain distance that allows us to continue to feel like an adult?
Save me, save me, Aimee Mann sings from the soundtrack of Magnolia, a film mostly about adults who needed saving as children and were not.
Come on and save me . . .
Why don’t you save me?
If you could save me,
From the ranks of the freaks,
Who suspect they could never love anyone . . .
Do these dramas touch something is us, some feeling, large or small, that no one has loved us quite enough? Do they remind us of how hard we have become, “freaks who could never love anyone”? Or are these formulations too simple? Are we both the adult and the child? Do we through this dual identification get to experience being saved twice? I don’t know, but I do believe these movies touch us in a place which remains from childhood, a place that tells us how vulnerable we were and, in many ways, still are and that they give voice to words we may not be able to speak but feel sometimes.
For a time, 20 years ago, I went to the Sunday evening mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, a Roman Catholic Church in Nashville. I was not a Catholic, but I was reading a lot of the writings of the Thomas Merton, and I loved the service for a lot of reasons: the folk rhythms of the songs, the many races and ethnicities present, and the old priest who often celebrated. Father Fleming was his name. When Father Fleming came to what I thought of as “the communion of saints” in the Eucharistic Prayer, he inserted a few lines I had never heard before nor have I heard them since. “Think of someone from your childhood,” he would say “someone who was kind to you” and then he would pause long enough for you to actually think about your childhood.
I always thought of the same person, even though I tried mightily to think of others, and there were numerous others who were kind enough to remember well. Still, I always thought of Mrs. Royer, a customer on my paper route in Hickman, KY when I was about 12. My route ran around the top of the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River before winding its way to the downtown area. I liked the downtown part the best. I was always given a few extra papers to sell on the streets. This meant I got to walk in and out of shops and look for likely customers at the street corners as well. After I finished up with these sales, I would deliver my last paper to Mrs. Royer, who lived on the second floor of the LaClede Hotel.
The old hotel was gray and dark, and getting to her apartment involved a scary little passage I always dreaded. At the top of the stairs, I had to make a right to walk around the stairwell, then a left and another quick right to go down her hallway. Between those two turns was a little dark nook where linens were stored. The nook was covered by a cloth of some kind and was not lighted. I never stopped believing that today was the day someone was going to jump out and grab me.
A few doors down the hall was Mrs. Royer’s small apartment. Mrs. Royer was a widow who went to our church and lived what looked like a lonely life in the old hotel. She seemed tall to me with a stiff back, and at church usually wore a black suit with a black claw hat that showed a lot of her long grey hair, usually gathered in a bun. She was special to me because she always asked me in and gave me milk and cookies. Some days she was still in her dressing gown in the late afternoon and some days she seemed unusually nervous, her hands shaky. I was a precocious little fat boy so I am sure I did most of the talking, but there was a conversation going on and each of us was warmed by it. I never doubted that Mrs. Royer was as happy to see me as I was to see her.
Mrs. Royer was not the first elderly woman to fill a gap in my life. When we first moved to Hickman, I regularly visited Mrs. Lucy Stokes, the great grandmother of some of my schoolmates. Mrs. Lucy was very kind to me. She had a twinkle in her eye and white hair gathered on top of her head. I remember a white shawl and a lot of sunlight in the room where we sat. My father idealized our relationship in a poem titled “His Lady on the Throne.” Here’s the final verse:
Companionship is seldom found
That has a closer bond
And there must be a fairy, good,
Who wields a magic wand
For those who knew were ever amazed
At fellowship so fine,
For she was eighty and seven
And he was only nine.
During my high school years, others stepped forward to help me along. Jerry Williams, my basketball coach, took a strong interest in me and filled in to help me with many tasks my father was too ill to do such as teaching me to drive. After my father died, Norman Orr, who succeeded my father as my pastor, was a good friend. But the most important influence of my high school years was Louise Akin, who hired me to work in her small department store in Newbern, TN and went on to become my second mother for more than 50 years. During times of family crisis, Louise’s home became my home, and it always felt like that for the rest of her life.
After the pause, Father Fleming would say “Hear them pray for you, as you pray for them.” I thought it was the loveliest idea that somewhere within a murmur too large to imagine were the voices of a lonely old lady and a little fat boy praying for each other. I like to think that some real life Puerto Rican kid is there too, saying “You’re my mother. You’re my father. You’re my mother. You’re my whole family. You’re even my friend, Gloria. You’re my girlfriend, too.” And Gloria, who hated kids but risked her life to save Phil, is responding, “Aren’t you going to kiss your grandmother?” If it is not a miracle of the proportion that inspires the founding of religions, the communion of saints is a precious consolation in a world where there are too few. Hear them remember you as you remember them. Hear them long for your peace as you long for theirs. And among all those voices, surely, there is at least one saying:
From the ranks of the freaks,
Who suspect they could never love anyone.