“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” -Samuel Beckett
My mother died on June 17, 2000, the morning of my high school graduation. I was standing barefoot in my best friend’s kitchen when my grandmother tried to lie to me on the phone, her voice twice it’s normal pitch and entirely lacking it’s customary softness and sparkle. Her forced nonchalance made my knees buckle, and the lump in my throat had me nearly gasping for air even before she could finally bring herself to say the word, that word.
Then came the lightning strike. White light, white heat. Blindness. The next thing I remember I was shifting anxiously in my plastic folding chair, waiting for my name to come over the microphone, cursing the cap and gown I could have sworn were made of lead. I’m still surprised I even heard it at all. I received a standing ovation when I crossed the stage to claim my diploma—the audience having been led in a moment of silence in my mother’s honor a few minutes prior—but I was so focused on trying to keep my atoms from scattering themselves in all directions that I had no idea. The whiteness blanketed everything; I saw, but I couldn’t see. My world came to a grinding halt, even as things continued to move all around me like they always had, their rhythms unchanged. How could everything be completely different and yet exactly the same? I was a floe of ice drifting aimlessly on a shifting sea.
A heart can be broken, but it will keep beating just the same.
For years I laid in bed at night, imagining the world with my mother still in it. I had prosaic dreams where she’d call me on the phone to ask a simple question, or I’d walk by the kitchen and see her standing over the stove. With very little effort I could vividly conjure up her image, picturing the way her nose wrinkled when she laughed, or the way she looked when she was perched on the couch, engrossed in a book. The stunning ease with which I could produce these images made it difficult to accept that they were nothing more than a composite of moments already spent. The realization that you will never again see the face of someone you love nearly defies comprehension. When someone is so fiercely alive in your heart, how could they possibly be dead?
Tell me a story.
We are a nation of storytellers, sitting around campfires and dinner tables spinning yarns, weaving tableaus of our shared history. Park benches and barrooms become classrooms, as we tease out the threads of what connects us from the anecdotes that we share. We would be damned without these narratives. Untethered from the past we would have nothing to measure ourselves against. How would we know if we were more or less fortunate than our fathers? If we were as strong as our mothers? The stories passed down to us, and the ones we write for ourselves, define who we are in equal measure.
Much of the strength of Fried Green Tomatoes is derived from that innate willingness to listen when someone older and wiser has a tale to tell. Structured as a story within a story, the potency of the film lies in our ability to be a fly on the wall as Ninny Threadgoode (a sharp-tongued but grandmotherly Jessica Tandy) forges an unlikely friendship with a beleaguered, unhappy housewife named Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) and regales her with colorful stories about the goings on of the now abandoned town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Her narrative centers around the origins of the incredible Depression-era friendship between two women—Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker) and Ninny’s “sister-in-law,” Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson)— whose indelible, and also unlikely, bond was forged through the shared loss of Idgie’s beloved older brother, Buddy. Drawing strength from their grief and from one another, the pair are able to see each other through nearly everything that life throws their way, good or bad: the entrenched racism of the Deep South, the abuse that Ruth suffers at the hands of her husband Frank, the opening of the Whistle Stop Cafe, the birth of Ruth’s son Buddy Jr.—even Idgie’s eventual trial for Frank’s murder.
As the story of Ruth and Idgie’s friendship unfolds, the affection between Ninny and Evelyn grows, and Evelyn begins to see that Ninny isn’t just telling her a story—she is giving her the tools to take back control of her own life. She is passing on Ruth and Idgie’s strength. Evelyn sees in them the woman that she wants to be, and, through the lens of their friendship, she realizes what she has been lacking. Through the words of an old woman, the past is resurrected, and with it the boldness and courage of an obvious and immense love, the kind of love that retains its power no matter how much time has passed. We learn about devotion and loyalty and courage. We also learn how hard it is to say goodbye. When Ninny reveals that Ruth died of cancer, our breath catches in our chests; the seemingly unbreakable bond between the two women has been snapped like a brittle twig. All that can be heard is Idgie’s anguish, as time stops in Ruth’s bedroom.
When I first saw Fried Green Tomatoes, years before I lost my mother, I was overwhelmed with sadness about Ruth’s death, and absolutely gutted by Idgie’s reaction to her loss. I had occasionally entertained thoughts about what it would be like to lose someone close to me, as most children do once they learn that death is a part of life. Still, understanding that people die doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand death. Grief doesn’t exist as an abstraction, so my contemplation would often tend toward the tactical: Would we move out of our house if my father died? Who would sing me “Summertime” while I nodded off to sleep if I lost my mother? But with Fried Green Tomatoes, perhaps for the very first time, I was seeing what it would be like to try and figure out how life could go on without a person that was as vital to your existence as the air that you breathe. It was the first film I had ever seen that seemed real enough to demand my empathy. I sobbed as I thought about Idgie carrying the weight of an incurable loneliness. I sobbed harder when the Whistle Stop Café shuttered its doors and the last vestige of what Idgie and Ruth had built for themselves was left a dusty ruin.
It was only after I watched my mother slip away years later (like Ruth, a victim to cancer’s avarice) that I really understood that love is transcendental. We may shuffle off our mortal coils, but the spirit of who we were—and what we meant to the people who loved us—lingers on. As long as Idgie remembers the dancing breeze and the look on Ruth’s face when she reached into that swarm of bees for a chunk of honeycomb, she can never truly be lonely; they would always be there, together, in that field, in that moment. If every once in awhile she laughs to herself, recalling the riotous food fight that began over a charming insult, the Whistle Stop Café is never truly closed.
Memory is a gift that allows us to carry pieces of the ones we love with us, wherever we go. We have the power to share that gift, to make totems of every beehive, tomato, frying pan, and train track. We can see the glimmers of familiar expressions on the faces of children and teach them about the spirits they are imbued with. There is strength and courage and comfort to be mined in the sound of a laughter you can only hear when you close your eyes.
See, now is the time for courage. I guess you already know that there are angels masqueradin’ as people walkin’ around this planet, and your mom was the bravest one of those.
I no longer have to imagine a world with my mother still in it because I’ve realized that she never really left, not completely. I still see her when I look in the mirror and when I listen to Bonnie Raitt. I have sheaves of her poetry and shoeboxes full of notes she left in my backpack and on the kitchen counter. I have her sharp tongue and her sense of humor. Most importantly, I have stories.
I understand now that I have a responsibility to share those stories, to not forget. I tell my daughter all about her grandmother, and will continue to do so until she knows in her heart the woman that I knew and cherished, and can draw strength from my mother’s strength. Even though they will never meet, she will know the boldness and courage of an obvious and immense love, and will carry it with her, as I do with me.
All these people’ll live as long as you remember ‘em.