Can We Talk About the Mom in ‘A Christmas Story’?
It was difficult to watch movies in 2020 and not project our frustrations and fears onto the screen. Perhaps the extravagant wedding sequence in “The Godfather” suddenly felt garish compared to all of this year’s zoom “I Dos”. Or maybe you are dressing up “elf” for a quarantine period and the crowded mall scenes made you sweat in a cold sweat with everyone inside and no one wearing a mask.
When I recently saw the classic “A Christmas Story” for the 20th time (at least), my pandemic-tired brain was focused on something I had never really noticed. I looked past the cute kids and the leg lamp and the famous tongue scene and focused on the mother with the laser. One look at her tousled hair and shabby robe and angry look and I thought, this woman is a goddamn heroine.
“A Christmas Story,” which TBS has played on a bow every Christmas season for over a decade, is set in Indiana in the early 1940s and follows a boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas . although his mother (Melinda Dillon, called “mother” in the credits) says his dream gift is too dangerous. That’s pretty much the plot, but director Bob Clark and writer Jean Shepherd somehow created a strange, timeless Christmas movie that manages to be both darkly weird and cute. I’ve seen this movie every year, assuming Ralphie is the protagonist. Now I’m not so sure.
When we meet mother, she is amazed, serves food and wears dirty clothes that look like rags next to her husband’s comparatively haute couture suit. While the old man (Darren McGavin) reads the newspaper or grumbles about the faulty stove, cooks, cleans, the children wrestle in their huge snowsuits and are annoyed about the welfare of everyone, although nobody is annoyed about theirs.
Normally I wouldn’t find her plight all that exciting, but on this tour I really wanted to know what this woman was doing with her alone time once her husband and children left for the day. She didn’t juggle school and work at home during a global crisis, so she just kept cleaning? Maybe she mixed up a secret Tom Collins and took a bubble bath. Where were the scenes where she celebrated her freedom by dancing through an empty house, like Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman”? Did i project?
Something tells me she wasn’t sipping cocktails and pirouetting from room to room.
Instead, we see mom serving cabbage and meatloaf, which practically makes her a saint in my book. I’ve served my toddler son goldfish and some grapes for dinner on occasion over the past year (toddlers are picky!) So at least their uninspired meals are homemade. We also see her washing Ralphie’s mouth with a huge bar of red soap after saying “the queen mother of dirty words.” My son said his first swear word this year, only he is 3 years old instead of 9 like Ralphie. Instead of stuffing soap into his mouth, I looked away to hide my laughter and avoid paying attention to the word. Mother did not have the luxury of reading fancy books by child psychologists instructing her what to do when children swear. What she had was a large bar of soap.
Mom may not be treated like a superstar, but Dillon was rated highly on “A Christmas Story”. She came up with a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” And two Oscar nominations for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Absence of Malice” for the film. Dillon started out as the first cloakroom girl at the improvisational theater The Second City in Chicago, but when her career quickly took off she was overwhelmed by the prospect of fame. She turned her energies away from acting and turned to marriage and children. However, the role of the real suburban mother quickly lost its appeal.
“I was buried alive,” Ms. Dillon said in a 1976 interview with The Times about her stay at home. She went back to work.
Reading this, it’s hard to imagine that Ms. Dillon put some of those feelings into the role of a woman who, as Ralphie said at the beginning of the film, “hasn’t had a hot meal to herself in 15 years”.
It’s not just a meatloaf back pushover, however. Mother has mastered the art of outsmarting her husband. She uses stealth tactics to convince him not to turn on the hideous leg lamp he won in a competition. She suggests turning them off so they don’t waste electricity (this is a stealth tactic in my eyes). She later asserts her authority, not so subtly, by destroying the leg lamp in a fit of anger. I cheered her on off-camera with every hit. Without hot meals and cooped up at home, she needs it.
At the end of “A Christmas Story,” Ralphie and Randy tear open their many presents, and The Old Man opens a present from Mother, a shiny blue bowling ball. When I saw her watching her husband and sons enjoy the Christmas tree, I noticed that she was holding something that could either be a gold spatula or a fly swatter. I hoped whatever her gift was it wasn’t any of these things. The umpteenth time I watched this film, I suddenly had to know whether this woman, the saint of the film, was getting a Christmas present.
The hectic Google searches that combined “mother”, “Christmas story”, “gift” and “spatula” returned nothing. So I emailed A Christmas Story House & Museum in Cleveland, the website of the actual house in the movie, hoping for answers.
“Who cares what the mother gets for Christmas,” replied museum owner Brian Jones. It turned out he was joking, but still. “Nobody has ever asked me in business for nearly two decades,” he wrote.
According to Jones, mother actually has a fly swatter in her hand. When she receives presents, we never see her. Is her Christmas present the fact that her husband and sons are all happy and fulfilled? Where’s her reward for multitasking and feeding and clothing everyone from blizzards while she sacrifices her own time and energy to make another cabbage stew? You could at least have given her a card!
When I watch the ending of “A Christmas Story” from now on, I will no longer focus on Ralphie’s BB pistol or Old Man Parker’s bowling ball. I’m going to look for the mother and imagine a deleted scene where she throws her feet up, has that Tom Collins and has a quiet moment to herself.
Dina Gachman is an Austin-based writer and author of “Brokenomics”.