seeing ourselves in lady bird
For about a week and a half in mid-December, the Avon Cinema became my second home. While I love the Avon, it wasn’t the retro decor, or the campy pre-show commercials, or the people-watching (a funny mix of elderly couples and college students shirking their responsibilities) that drew me in. It was Sacramento, circa 2002-2003, and faded red hair dye, and communion wafers (not consecrated!), and Dave Matthews Band. Lady Bird kept me coming back to the Avon, again and again. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut stars Saoirse Ronan as opinionated Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and Laurie Metcalf as Marion, her exasperated, strong-willed mother. The movie explores the contours of their relationship over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year. Each viewing was slightly different (slightly better), but without fail, I would watch the credits roll with tears running down my face, fishing out my phone to text my mom. I hounded her until she saw Lady Bird herself, and though we talked about it a little right after, I wanted to discuss it in more detail with her. Like both protagonists in the film, my mom and I grew up in the same town (Evanston, Illinois), attended the same high school, and, and this is where it goes even deeper…grew up in the same house. We took over the family home after my grandparents moved to a condo a few minutes away, so I spent my adolescence sleeping in my mother’s teenage bedroom. I have always wondered how strongly my teenage years paralleled hers, especially because in the hubris of youth, I spent so long thinking we were fundamentally different people, when really, like Lady Bird and her mom, we might have been operating on two sides of a very similar coin. What follows is a conversation we had in February, while she was driving home from work.
I started by asking her what her experience of seeing the movie was like.
“[Lady Bird] was on my radar,” she answered, “but the fact that you demonstrated [interest] and went out of your way to say, ‘This is amazing,’ made me that much more interested in going and seeing it too. Then while watching it, I have to admit that there was, for me, this parallel processing. As I’m taking it in and being Mom, being Linda, and experiencing it from my own point of view, it was also ‘I wonder how Anna liked that. Oh, I could see totally why Anna liked this scene. Oh, I totally see how this resonated with her. Huh? Is that really what she thinks of me? Is that what she might say about me?’”
I laughed. If she was thinking of the part when Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Danny, describes her mom as “scary and warm,” I probably would say something like that. Also, pretty whip-smart; she dropped the phrase “meta-processing” into the next bit of conversation, describing her relationship with her own mother.
“There were aspects of some of the scenes that reminded me of me in both roles, Lady Bird and her mom. And I went to the place of, ‘Was I that way with Sophie (my grandmother, who passed away when I was eight)? I bet I probably was.’ And so, that also has it take on an additional meaning because Grandma’s not here.”
Obviously, I’m not a mom yet, so my viewing of the movie was a bit more one-sided. But what struck me most about it was that it felt like, watching Lady Bird and Marion, I was watching my mom and me. I had never seen anything capture our relationship so well, fiction or nonfiction. I tried to articulate this to her.
“I was thinking about it from your perspective, Mom, because I would see Lady Bird do something and be like, ‘Oh shit, I’ve done that.’ And in the context of a movie, [I] can be like, ‘Well, that was not a nice thing to do,’ but in the context of my own life, I know that I’ve definitely snapped at you when we were trying to…buy a prom dress or whatever, you know, as many times as it happens in the movie. And seeing how that was reflected for Laurie Metcalf’s character, I was like, ‘Oh wow.’ But then also, [I] felt like it was so, just us, and it was so genuine.”
My mom immediately retorted: “But the other piece on it, and what I think makes it such a remarkable movie, is that so many mothers and daughters see themselves in Lady Bird and her mom.”
And she’s right. We’re not the only pair of women who have tried to buy a prom dress in a thrift shop, arguing over the whole ordeal (“Are you tired? I’m not tired! Well, it looked like you were dragging your feet!”) until one of us finds the PERFECT dress and everything is okay again. We’re not unique. We’re just like everybody else.
But maybe in some ways, our story is unique. In terms of geography, we had the same exact surroundings from ages 0 to 18, those years that every developmental psychologist hammers home as integral for personal development. Lots of our milestone experiences were the same, or if not the same, about as similar as they could be with a 30-year time gap. Yet, there’s a part of me that has always felt like my hometown is not my mother’s—like her Evanston was fundamentally different from the one I knew. I asked her about it:
“Obviously Sacramento is not Evanston, but I feel like this kind of applies in our situation. Because the movie feels like a love letter to Sacramento even though Lady Bird kind of hates it and talks about how much she hates it, you realize at the end of the movie that she actually has this really deep affection for it. And I found that that was something that really resonated with me because I know in high school I could really hate Evanston a lot. And I really did, like want to ‘go to the East Coast, where culture is’ and thought there was nothing [in Evanston] for me. And now I find, here I am, on the East Coast, where the culture is, I guess, at Brown specifically, and I find that I miss home a lot and find aspects of Evanston that I think are really, really great. So I’m wondering, did you have a similar experience when you went to college, of finding out that the place you wanted to leave so badly actually wasn’t that bad?”
Her answer came quickly:
“I’m not so sure that I actually wanted to leave Evanston as desperately—as passionately—as you felt you did. I think I had a different experience of my hometown than I think you did coming through. And I think it also speaks to our temperaments. I don’t know, but I think you’re more like Lady Bird in that you play in the poles, like on the ‘I love it/I hate it.’ Not that I’m easygoing, but I don’t think I’ve ever had those full-on, strong opinions about home, about place, about our hometown in the same way. Except to say that, and here’s what’s funny, I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily desperately homesick, but what I found myself doing, and what you clearly are not doing, is that I would invite people to come back to Evanston with me from Grinnell. Granted, I wasn’t going to Grinnell because it was more sophisticated and more cultured than Evanston/Chicago. It was a completely different place. So it’s almost like, in reverse. I wanted to show the people that I met at school how awesome home/Evanston/Chicago was and [what it] meant to me.”
I was also curious about why she moved back to Evanston and decided to raise her family there. I remember lots of conversations I’ve had with friends from high school, who even now, at age 19 or 20, will passionately declare that they want to do the same. Spend a few years in a college town somewhere, then move to a big city for another little while, but ultimately settle down at home. That’s the kind of place Evanston is—it draws people back. I wanted to know if my mom was like my friends. Despite loving my hometown, I’ve never felt that strong “pull” toward it. There’s a sense of rootlessness to me that I can never shake.
“I don’t think I ever thought hard about it, long and hard about it, to be perfectly honest.”
I felt a little better then. She talked about the discussions she and my dad had when they decided to move back to the suburbs, about how she had to trust the process and hope that he’d realize that of all the communities on the North Shore of Chicago, Evanston is “so much better.”
She continued: “It wasn’t like in my young adulthood I ever thought, ‘Oh yes, of course I’m going to come back and bring my family here.’ Maybe because the family never left and 2149— our address, and what everyone in the family calls the family home—was always there, I always knew that there would be aspects of home that my family would have, that my kids would have. Now we’ve taken it to the nth degree, getting 2149 and really being true boomerangs.”
I asked her about that, about raising us in the house she was raised in. Was it creepy or cool? It’s good, she said, for the most part. She likes that I sleep in her old bedroom (“100%”), that she knows where the “skeletons are buried.” But she also knows we wouldn’t be in this situation if my grandma were still alive, if she hadn’t gotten sick and had to downsize at exactly the time her daughter’s family was looking to upgrade. It’s bittersweet.
I gave us both a few seconds to breathe after that. Then I switched gears. I had one more question (and the one that, without spoiling too much, is why Lady Bird is, to me, the perfect film about growing up and leaving home).
“Did you get emotional the first time you drove in Evanston?” I asked.
“First time coming back from school or as a parent?”
“No, I was thinking the first time after getting your license—like the first time you drove alone.”
“Oh absolutely, without a doubt. Without a doubt.”