I had forgotten so much of it. How could have I have forgotten? I probably watched the movie hundreds of times when I was a child. I knew every single line, from Jane and Michael’s job description for a new nanny to the jokes that Bert and Uncle Albert told when they were floating on the ceiling, to the final, hopeful lyrics of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
It wasn’t until last week when I finally sat down with my daughters to watch
for the first time that I remembered so many of those beautiful details that had such a firm grip on my young mind (and to be honest, my heart): Mrs. Bank’s “votes for women” sash (I didn’t really understand the message, but man, did I want a sash), Mary Poppins’ magical cough syrup that changes taste depending on who is drinking it, and chimneys that could suck a child up and send them into the rooftops high above a city. I loved it all.
Here is what I have never forgotten: the small, dark room at the top of the stairs in the old Victorian house my sister, mother, and I were living in with my grandmother. It was at the end of a short hallway, and down a few steps. The space was just big enough to hold a loveseat, a taple-top movie projector and BetaMax player, a screen, and a glass-fronted china cabinet filled with my grandmother’s antique doll collection and an older cousin’s collection of Friday the 13th movies. Most days after school and most weekends for at least a year, my sister and I would grab a few snacks and a drink and settle in to watch the movie once or twice through.
It was our haven. It was our escape. I felt happy, safe, and hopeful there, in that room, with my sister by my side and Mary Poppins singing about a spoonful of sugar.
It’s so obvious now, but I was young then and not terribly introspective. My parents responded to the stress of single parenting differently; my father was somewhat rigid and controlling (by the time I was in 3rd grade, I was answering the phone with “Naumburg Residence, This is Carla speaking”), and my mother was busy, distracted, and often unavailable. There was no question in my young mind that they loved my sister and me deeply, but our lives were chaotic and unpredictable. My sister and I frequently flew alone between California and New Mexico, and those trips were filled with kind strangers; I remember an elderly man with a long white beard who spent the entire flight trying to convince us he was Santa Claus. There was another woman who was a professional clown; she filled the space around our seats with balloon animals. I suppose it wasn’t totally irrational to imagine that a kind, patient, beautiful woman might appear out of nowhere, snap her fingers, sing a few songs, and somehow give me a functional family and a normal life.
Mary Poppins never did show up except when we summoned her on my grandmother’s BetaMax machine. Eventually the months and years passed and the videotape gathered dust in that small room in my grandmother’s house. I went off to college and graduate school, I got a job, got married and became a mother. I forgot about Mary and Bert.
Until last week, that is, when I sat down with my daughters, bundled under a blanket, lovies in hand. We laughed so hard during the animated scene with the dancing penguins that I thought one of us might pee on the couch. And as they buried their faces in my shoulders during the scene where Jane and Michael are running alone through the dark streets of London, I realized a few things.
My daughters love this movie as much as I do, but for very different reasons. They don’t love it because it represents some deeply held but ultimately unattainable fantasy of theirs (except, of course, their dream of laughing their way up to the ceiling–every kid wants to do that). They love it because it’s hilarious when Bert pulls his pants down and dances around like a penguin, because they too dream of dancing on rooftops one day, and because supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is the greatest word ever when you’re only 5 years old. These days, I love it because it makes my daughters happy, and because for the first time in my life, I can watch it without an ache in my chest and a longing in my heart.
And that, perhaps, is the real magic of Mary Poppins.