Pardon me if I cry a bit.
The Happiest Millionaire is the best failed film Disney ever made, but I cannot stop thinking about it just now. It features an eccentric educator who makes a good life for his children, a wonderful life, but then is saddened to see it end. The tedium of the third act is so dreadfully slow that many people don’t endure to the moment when the father (Fred MacMurray) sits with his wife in an empty house after the daughter has gone to adult life. His wife (Greer Garson) sings the Dad a song about the need, the joy, the sorrow of letting children go. That’s sad, but then she reminds him that it will not be that long until Christmas and that is glad because they are the kind of house people want to come home to visit.
I am not planning on listening to that song just now given that I am an eccentric educator who hopes to have made a good life for his children, and now is seeing his youngest daughter marry. For some reason, I think this song might make me cry. In fact, I am sure it would. Why? The song made me cry as a little boy, because I was the child of eccentric educators who gave me a wonderful life and I knew that this would happen to them. It seemed so sad to make my parents sad. And of course, I did go and get married and leave the wonderful nest they had made for me.
Here is the good news: as a child, I did not understand the song. The sorrow is real: what was good must go, the old order, so fun and jolly, must change and give way to the new. Yet now I see that it is the sorrow of happiness. We raised our babies to leave us. We wanted them strong, free, able to love God with all their hearts, souls, and minds, but on their own terms. We wanted them to be adults and so now the main story, the wedding story, is the story of Jane and Jacob.
Jane and Jacob are choosing, without us, and that means all is well.
They will go on an exciting trip after the wedding and we will go home, having let them go. If we have done our job well, then now we are honored parents, friends. As a result, sometimes they will choose to come home for Christmas, not out of duty, but because they wish to do so. If we made the parting easy, then the return will be easy as well! The time has come, so far as their lives go, to play a supporting role to their starring turn and this is good.
They have to go and when they are gone from us, they will make the world bigger. If our world is smaller, that is the joy of parenting. We decrease, they increase.
Slowly as the years have passed, we have given up the control our little child Jane needed, given her liberty, and let her bloom into grown-up womanhood.
First, you tell a child what to do, then you give advice, and finally, you ask if you might help. My Mother had a poem on the wall of her bathroom that put this well: Birds must fly or they would not have wings. *
The only disconnect from the Disney film is that while I am happy and gladly let them go, I am no millionaire, not even a hundred-dollar-aire! Yet as I think of Lewis, Mary Kate, Ian, Jane, and now Jacob . . . full grown, flown, and friends another great film helps me. “no man is a failure who has friends.” You cannot keep children, but you can multiply friends. I am rich after all, eccentric, happy in friends: the happiest millionaire.
Hey, Hope, it won’t be long until Christmas.
*I love this poem:
“This is a leaf all withered and dry
That once was a canopy overhead:
Doesn’t it make you cry
To look at that dear little empty bed?”
All the birdies have flown away
But birds must fly or they would not have wings;
And the mother knew they would go someday
When she used to cuddle the downy things.
“Do you think she’s lonesome? Why there’s a tear!
And here’s another! That makes two!
Why do you hug us and look so queer?
If we were birdies, we would not leave you?”
Deep in the mother’s listening heart
Drops the prattle with sudden sting;
For lips may quiver and tears may start
But birds must fly or they would not have wings.
— Emily Huntington Miller
Rachel Motte edited this essay.