My son’s latest favorite movie is Mary Poppins. I have to admit, that when I realized my son liked Mary Poppins, and even loved it, I was over the moon. It was one of my own favorite movies from my childhood; it was a movie I don’t mind watching with him repeatedly. Mostly, what my almost three year old loves is the music, and I love that he loves the music, if only because I love to hear him sing “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” or “Feed the Birds” when he struggles to fall asleep or while he’s playing by himself. I delight in that while he calls the playground “Play pound,” he can say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” perfectly.
My son is that marvelous age of two-almost-three, that age when you can see on their faces their minds working to assimilate new ideas and formulate sentences to convey their thoughts. Sometimes, since the birth of my daughter in July, my son gets sad. I can see the emotion wash over his face as his cheeks fall and his mouth drop. Sometimes he cries, and then falls asleep and sometimes he sighs, cries, and asks for a hug. Sometimes he says, “I miss you mommy” when I haven’t been gone, just constantly nursing his sister.
One night we were talking about the sadness, and the kinds of things that make us sad. I said, it’s okay to feel sad and cry because we’re sad, that in fact, it can help the sadness go away. His eyes perked up.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Yeah.” I said.
“You get sad? You cry?” he asked, somehow surprised. I tried not to laugh. I tried not to point that I had a newborn and hormones and what have you and that he had witnessed my tears when I couldn’t find the latest New Yorker magazine or when we had the last bite of the season’s peach pie.
“Yes.” I said. “Often.”
“Does Mary Poppins?”
I had to ponder this a moment. Because she doesn’t. She, as we know, is practically perfect in every way, and, as we know, the British (as portrayed by Disney in 1910 England) aren’t too fond of emotion. Their response to exclamations of emotion (as we learn in the scene where George Banks get sacked) is “steady on” or the now cliché “keep calm and carry on.” Stiff upper lip and all that. And not that there aren’t moments when that coping mechanism isn’t useful. But I can’t say it helped me much in the conversation about Mary Poppins and sadness with my toddler.
(Though can I stop and say how much I loved, as a former English major, professor and geek, being able to discuss fictional characters with my son? Or that I thought being able to have such discussions with him must mean he has an impressive understanding of narrative structure?)
And for the first time in my life, I got peeved at Mary Poppins for not weeping, sniveling or wiping her snot on her sleeve as she said good-bye to Jane and Michael Banks.
But I said, “well, I think she wants to cry, when she leaves, because she has fallen in love with Jane and Michael. I suspect her heart breaks each time she has to leave the children she’s looked after.”
“Yeah?” He says. He breathes a sigh of relief and rolls over to go to sleep, somehow the potential of Mary Poppins’ sad emotions easing the burden of his own emotional humanity.
Yet it left me thinking about how Mary Poppins doesn’t cry. In fact, I realized, she barely laughs. Instead, as she tells that rascally parrot on the handle of her umbrella, “Practically perfect people don’t allow sentiment to muddle their thinking.” Again, there are times when we should not let our feelings muddle our thinking, like in the middle of a crisis. Yet studies have shown that even in areas that should be completely intellectual, like when managing one’s finances, people are still run by their emotions. Certainly, the belief that we must keep our emotions out of the way proves problematic on many fronts, and despite this, it’s a belief that many were and are raised with and that still runs through our culture, like when a female politician cries in public and is accused of being emotional or not clear headed.
I still love Mary Poppins (and I admit, I’d do anything for an umbrella with a parrot on the handle) and there’s a lot about it that works for being a perfect movie for small children (no one is a bad guy, everyone is respectful to each other, etc). Mary Poppins does make some rather astute observations about humanity and teaches Jane and Michael about having compassion for others and considering that other people see the world differently. She raises the issue of what a practically perfect in every way person is like and as most our current schools buckle down into reading and math curriculums in an effort to boost test scores, Mary Poppins’ activities offer a refreshing lack of standardized instruction. All in all, I appreciate that she gives my son and I plenty to talk about.