Friday, September 13, 2013

A Bountiful Journey

"Growing up in a family as large and as close as mine made it hard to realize there were many people who lived in loneliness and solitude. However, the realization of that sad truth also brought me close to a remarkable woman and sent me on a journey that I was to remember for the rest of my life."

Opening narration

My mother introduced me to The Waltons before they had their own TV show. She saw them in a made–for–TV Christmas movie and saw many similarities between myself and the oldest child in the family, John–Boy.

Personally, I didn't see much similarity at first — other than the fact that John–Boy was a writer. He was quite a bit older than I was, and he had three brothers and three sisters. I only had one brother. John–Boy was a child in the Depression, which is when both of my parents were children.

But I suppose I began to feel differently on this night in 1973 when the second full season of The Waltons began.

The episode that began that season, "The Journey," was about a special friendship between John–Boy and an elderly neighbor, Maggie MacKenzie (Linda Watkins), who lived alone. As nearly as I could tell, John–Boy and Maggie weren't friends until John–Boy brought his grandmother over to check on Maggie, who had been having some health problems.

When they arrived, Maggie was trying to start her old car and having no luck. John–Boy thought it might be the spark plugs and said he would change them for her. She gave him money for the parts, but he refused to accept payment for his labor. What he didn't realize was that Maggie had in mind to drive to the coast to observe the 55th anniversary of her wedding.

There wasn't really any reason why he should have known that. Besides, John–Boy was distracted at the time by the upcoming school dance and his uncertainty over whether the girl he wanted to take would go with him. He was unaware of anything that was happening in anyone else's life.

But Maggie, knowing she might not get another chance, was determined to go to the sea coast for her anniversary. It had a special meaning for her.

"You may very well be the most stubborn, willful, cantankerous old woman I ever met in my life," Maggie's exasperated doctor told her when she told him of her plan after he had warned her about overexerting herself, "but if anything ever happened to you, I'd miss you very much."

When John–Boy repaired her car, Maggie shared the story of her wedding with him. When I watched a rerun of the episode many years later, their conversation, in Maggie's little living room, reminded me of afternoons I spent with an older woman who was a great friend of mine and an influence on me in my teen years in Arkansas.

I called her "Aunt Bess," but she wasn't really my aunt. That's what everyone in my hometown called her. Her husband was known as "Uncle Mac," and he was a preacher, a radio personality and an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. Uncle Mac died years before I met Aunt Bess, but after I met her, I started visiting her every Wednesday afternoon after school. We would sit and talk and drink tea (or Coke), maybe nibble on some cookies. I don't remember why I started doing that or how long I did, but it was a regular ritual through my high school years.

Aunt Bess never tricked me into doing anything for her. Whenever she had a request, I was eager to fulfill it if I could. Truth be told, she never asked me for much — except my friendship, and that was something I gave freely.

But in "The Journey," Maggie tricked John–Boy into coming back because she needed him to take her to the coastline for her anniversary.

Maggie didn't have to be too tricky. The thing that I always found implausible about The Waltons was the fact that they were always willing to make a sacrifice for someone else. That's an admirable quality — but, let's face it, it's a quality that most humans don't have.

(I think that may have been what my mother liked the most about The Waltons, though. They epitomized the concept of self–sacrifice, and that was something on which my mother and others of her generation were raised. It didn't seem to be considered noble by my generation.)

In this episode, John–Boy was prepared to sacrifice his much–anticipated date to drive an old woman whom he hardly knew to the coast for her wedding anniversary. I don't know if I could have been that noble at that age. Guess it's a good thing I was never asked to be that noble.

But when the trip proved to be the overexertion Maggie's doctor had warned her about, John–Boy found it hard to forgive himself.

And the final scene in the episode taught the kind of lesson at which The Waltons excelled. It was the kind of schmaltzy cornpone that only The Waltons could get away with in those days (well, I suppose Little House on the Prairie could, too).

On her deathbed, Maggie thanked John–Boy for "the happiest time I've had in 30 years," and she gave him a valuable coin that had been given to her on her wedding day.

And, with that, she died. (Betcha saw that one coming, huh?)

Symbolically, when John–Boy and his father came home, Grandpa and the rest of the clan were about to release into the wild a seagull they had been nursing back to health.

"Some people are drawn to oceans, and others to the shimmering sands of deserts," the narrator said as the camera followed the liberated seagull as it flew into a clear blue sky.

"Others feel only at home on land that flows beside a river. My people were drawn to mountains, and there on Walton's Mountain we were to share the fun and excitement of growing up together with the boundless love of our mother and father and a daily exploration of many of the wonders that lie in the human heart."

In other words, home is where the heart is. Wherever that might be.