with My Mother
At eighty-four, my mother is showing her age. She hobbles into the already dark theater to watch the movie we have previously seen separately but not together. I, recuperating from a broken foot, also am hobbling. Yet, despite the shadows and our less-than-perfect health, I easily find my place beside her—again. As the film begins, we both are caught up in Jackie Robinson’s story, but silent in our own reflections. Then the camera zooms in on a cigar-smoking slightly rumpled gentleman with bushy eyebrows. My mother leans over and whispers excitedly, “He sounds just like Uncle Branch. He really does.” While most of the largely senior audience sees Harrison Ford in that Midwestern second-run theater, my mother and I see family.
We have been warming up for this ballgame movie for a while now: chatting about one of its subjects—the Robinson/Rickey partnership—for many of my fifty-four years, years that like my mother’s eighty-four continue to witness needed change.
Two years earlier, while drafting a juvenile biography of Branch Rickey, I craved the familiar stories as only my mother could tell them. Bound together by the power of story and family, we spent hours on the phone. I listened as she reminisced about a man who wrote her letters, who taught her his favorite poems, who treated her to New York outings, and who took her to ballgames where, as a girl and young adult, she met such celebrities as sportscaster Red Barber, manager Leo Durocher, and comedian Jack Benny. During our phone conversations, she laughed at her great uncle’s notoriously bad driving and admired his abiding faith. In between, I added my few, brief recollections: family birthday parties where, at the age of three or four, I leaned against his shoulder a few years before his death.
Mostly though, I learned even more deeply the tales behind baseball’s “Great Experiment.” With each story, my deep respect for the Robinsons and my great granduncle grew deeper, and so did my relationship with my mother. As we gazed up together at the silver screen, I was reminded again how stories and memories bind us together, how values are passed down through generations.
My mother first saw 42 at its grand opening at Ohio Wesleyan University, the alma mater she shared with Branch Rickey, the great uncle who made it possible for her to attend and receive her degree more than sixty years ago. Along with several family members, she sat mesmerized in that beautiful Strand Theater, which, during my mother’s college years in the late 1940s, hosted reruns of Gone with the Wind.
Later, four hundred miles away in Pennsylvania, I heard my mother’s lively narratives of the Robinson/Rickey celebration: the insights and kindness of Branch Rickey III, and—of course—scene-by-scene accounts of Brian Helgeland’s cinematic retelling of baseball’s “Great Experiment.”
When my husband, two children, and I later sat in our own small-town crowded theater, we too re-experienced through the camera’s lens both our country’s and our family’s history. Watching the responses of my children, I witnessed once more how values travel generations. As a family, we clapped for all that has changed. And then we talked: about the need to make a difference, about the importance of continuing on toward what is most right and good.
Sharing that second, later viewing of 42 with my mother, I was blessed with the added commentary of her memories. We laughed, sighed, and dabbed our moist eyes together. By the flickering light of that movie’s projector, we looked back and ahead. We were able to hope that the experiences passed on from one generation to the next could continue to instill change. And so, after the credits rolled and the theater emptied, my mother and I hobbled on our weakened bodies into the afternoon sun. The day was not yet over. There were still a lifetime of stories to discuss. There were still ways to make the dark corners of the world brighter.
Marjorie Maddox is Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University.