My childhood house is a little big for the neighborhood. It sits on the corner of two streets, a roomy red ranch among smaller ranches and Cape Cods. A young family lives in the house next door where a World War II veteran had raised his children and watched me grow up in his old age. He and his wife could remember when this neighborhood was brand new. It may not look quite as uniform as the neighborhood George Bailey built for the people of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, but it was built at the same time, for a similar purpose.
George Bailey’s neighborhood turns seventy-five this year. By chance, this was also the year that I moved out of my neighborhood, though not to “see the world,” as young George fantasizes. I made the dramatic shift from one small Michigan town to another, two hours away. But though I’m not too far, my heart has grown fonder of it in absence. When I returned to walk around my block this Thanksgiving, I walked slowly, noting everything—the frost on leftover lawn pumpkins, the way the sun caught a thorny blood-red berry bush, the way an oak leaf lay cupping melted snow. I stopped by the tree where seemingly all the squirrels in the ‘hood would congregate, but it was quiet that day, with the hush of pending hibernation. I had forgotten none of this, yet it still surprised me. On that day, under the intense November blue sky, it seemed at once old and new.
George Bailey did not choose Bedford Falls. Bedford Falls chose him. In this, he could be contrasted with the titular character in Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Jayber is by nature an intellectual, able to observe himself taking one deliberate step after another to ensure he remains a permanent prisoner in Port William. George, on the other hand, is not an intellectual. He is an everyman, acting by instinct, buffeted by passion and circumstance. Up to the very last sequence, he is burdened with the story’s core paradox: that the man who satisfies the townspeople’s fundamental urge for a home cannot find that urge within himself. Pa Bailey tries to explain this urge over what will be their last meal together. Fidgety twenty-something George does his best but is only half listening, because this is not his language. He doesn’t need to be completed by four walls and a fireplace. He wants to explore, to wander, to sleep under the stars.
Berry’s Hannah Coulter, another figure of the Port William storyverse, reflects that “members of Port William aren’t trying to get some place. They think they are some place.” This is how it is with George Bailey’s neighbors in Bedford Falls. It’s how it is with the girl next door. All they, and she, have ever wanted is a place of their own to call home, surrounded by the same people they’ve always known and loved. It is this wish Mary, George’s future wife, makes and keeps in her heart as she breaks the windows in the abandoned old house on Sycamore. It is this unspoken knowledge that twists George’s face in anguish as he drops the telephone and embraces her, knowing that a door has locked behind him forever.
After their wedding and the immediately subsequent bank crisis, George is confused by Mary’s invitation to “come home” to 320 Sycamore. “Come home?” he asks. “What home?” The confusion is natural in context. We can conjecture that the couple hadn’t yet begun house-hunting. But George’s question holds a deeper meaning as well, freighted as it is with his unshakeable sense of homelessness. Their tender embrace under the leaky roof then feels like a bookending resolution to their first tortured clinch. George has found his rest, at least for the moment.
But love and hate for the house contend silently in George’s heart, as it becomes a character unto itself, its walls a witness to his unfolding American fable. The loose banister knob taunts him each time he ascends the stairs. The windows offer weak protection from the draft. When George finally explodes before fleeing to the bridge, half his anger is aimed at the house he never did learn to love like a home. Yet nothing prepares him for the empty gothic horror that awaits in his parallel reality, the giant cobwebs brushing his face as he gropes in the dark and calls out for the family that is no more.
Waiting outside the house for him are parallel-universe Bert and Ernie, the two friends-turned-strangers who had serenaded George and Mary on their honeymoon. They are bitter men in this world, hard-faced and cynical. When George asks Ernie if he remembers the house George built for him and his wife, Ernie only shoots back, dead-eyed, “You seen my wife?” Pluck Ernie from Potter’s slums, give him his four walls and a fireplace, and he would have been content. He would have found his dignity, his manhood, his home.
Of course, all this and more is restored as George Bailey is given his second birth. Downtown is unspoiled again. The neighbors’ faces are kind again. And the old house on Sycamore welcomes him home.
Tomorrow, I will walk in my neighborhood again. Perhaps, as I walk, I will see shades of Christmas past. I will see the troop of carolers we always gathered to go tramping and singing through the neighborhood, the children scooping up and eating caked masses of snow. I will see the veteran and his wife giving us candy canes, the hunchbacked widow giving us raspberry syrup truffles. I will see the old man elbowing past his children to join them on the porch. I no longer remember what carol we sang. I only remember how he listened.
So the fabric of our lives is woven, each with its own pattern of timeless moments. So, at the end of all our exploring, we make our beginning. So we all come home, to know it for the first time.
Bethel McGrew is an essayist and social critic.
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