Virtue & Mischief: Broken balusters and fond memories


In the Christmas season, cinematic staple, teenagers George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart, who, I submit, was born to play the role; apparently Henry Fonda was also considered, but c’mon. Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey) and Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) walk through the streets of Bedford Falls after a high school dance.

They arrive at a drafty, decrepit and abandoned house. Mary loves the place. She finds it charming and full of character and potential. George isn’t impressed. They throw stones at it as they make wishes about their futures.

Mary’s come true: She and George get married, have several children, and come to live in that drafty and charm-filled home. Like all houses, especially older ones, theirs enjoys its share of unique features which—depending on your mood at any given moment—are either beguiling or infuriating. One such characteristic of the Bailey home is the loose knob at the bottom of the stair railing. During the apex of George’s desperation that serves as the dramatic focal point of the movie, he pulls it off and mutters angry epithets. This, he thinks, is emblematic of my life: broken, crappy, cheap, ill-fated. Later, after experiencing his angel-guided epiphany, a tour of what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

This vision possesses a necessary corollary, namely that his life has meant a great deal to more people than he could have ever imagined and is certainly still worth living. He returns to his house and as he begins to ascend the stairs to find and hug his children he again pulls the knob off. This time he smiles and happily replaces it, now appreciating it as an endearing (and still emblematic) little detail: Life is messy, yes, and things are often out of place, out of sync, frustrating or worse. But it’s also wonderful, in its own splintered, loud, profoundly imperfect fashion.

I thought of the Bailey home’s stairway a few nights ago. The amigos were hustling around upstairs, completing their bedtime rituals with varying degrees of speed and diligence. Daniel, as usual, was the first to finish brushing teeth, using the toilet, and donning pajamas. Abby sequestered herself in her room to change clothes and frantically dispatch a final message or two via the Ipod because, you know, the world might stop spinning on its axis if she neglected to thumb-type “’bye! Gotta go, bff!”, etc. Luke, meanwhile, spent an inordinate amount of time in his closet picking out just the right combination of t-shirt and shorts to sleep in. (The boy has already dedicated more time in his 11 years on this earth to choosing clothes and showering than I have in my 54.)

Luke, finally satisfied with his bedclothes ensemble, emerged from his closet and walked down the hallway toward the bathroom. I met him there and considered him quickly. He is in a good and cooperative mood, I noticed, a state to celebrate, encourage, and build from. I remembered how ticklish he used to be and wondered—is he still? How long had it been since I tickled this boy? Are those days gone forever? His ridiculously skinny, vulnerable body stood in front of me, in blue shorts and black t-shirt, simply begging to be tickled.

So I did it. I impulsively grabbed him and tickled his stomach. He laughed uncontrollably and his body convulsed—just like he did in the good old days, I thought to myself. He writhed and twisted and giggled. It was a splendid and sweet sound to my ears, for Luke has not laughed a lot lately. I tickled some more and he again twisted his body involuntarily.

CRAAAACK! His arm and back had lurched into one of the white, slender balusters (the third one from the right, in case you’re wondering) on the staircase railing, nearly snapping it in two. Uh oh.

Krista, horrified, hollered upstairs “WHAT WAS THAT?! WHAT WAS THAT?!” She arrived seconds later, assessed the situation, and appropriately (and fairly loudly) delivered a lecture whose theme generally could be distilled as “I’d prefer a co-parent to a fourth child any day of the week and twice on Sundays”. Or something like that. I had it coming, to be sure, and did my best to accept full blame and restore a little calm and perspective to the situation. It probably helped that what Krista heard was a railing spindle breaking rather than a human bone.

I carefully bent the baluster to its original position, Krista regained her composure, and we proceeded with our brief good night routine. And now when I look at the third baluster from the right at the top of the stairs I pause to consider my messy, imperfect, and wonderful life.

By Tim Swensen

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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