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  • Betsy Singleton Snyder


I want to tell you about my response to the new Disney Pixar movie, Onward, but first, I want to tell you why. I'm not providing a movie review, but a deep feeling, my feeling of gratitude evoked by this "kid" film.

We'd planned to hit the local theater during spring break. Instead, we were thankful Disney released it for streaming, so we could stay away from the people we care about, as well as those we don't even know, but who need us to care. And so we watched this animated story as Covid-19 spread, then descended into home lock-down. This isolation is hard for us all, but this past weekend stung in ways that pushed me toward the edge of dispiritedness.

Yesterday, Sunday, March 22, my mother would have turned 100. She was born in 1920, which is a fact I sometimes find hard to comprehend.

Today, Monday, March 23, my brother would have turned 80. We lost him suddenly to a heart attack last summer. He was vital, loved life, was funny, and made a difference in the world. His college alma mater, Hendrix, is scheduled to give him an honorary degree for his work in civil rights at this year's commencement, which I imagine will be cancelled. That makes me angry. I hate this Covid-19 because it has stolen so much life, from those who've died to those who are trying to live.

I'm lamenting my mother and brother, especially right now--and their wisdom.

Mom was 41 when I was born, unexpectedly, but the upside was that I had four older siblings all of my life. I never suffered the pains of sibling rivalry, although I now endure it second-hand as a mother of four competitive and very physical boys.

Because my mom was older when I was born, she parented me after living through big historical moments. She sketched for me in great detail her life during the Great Depression, as relatives came to live with her, her sister, and mother in the same home with my great-grandparents. Her grandpa owned a small store, and it kept them afloat. Mom told me these stories often, stories of survival, scraping by, and sharing. I watch what is occurring in the world, and nearby, and I think of those affected dramatically, and irreversibly.

I find myself examining the world we're living in, one that I have put under my own microscope and my historical lens. Change becomes harder when I wonder where the familiar is located: we're living in a frightening, unsettling, divided, careless, and perhaps, reckless time. I've lived through assassinations, the Cold War and its end, the loss of the Challenger and its crew, 9/11, wars, the Columbia disaster, the 2008 financial crisis, an increasing political divide, and now, like the rest of us, I am becoming acquainted with a pandemic.

In my home, there is also the onset of puberty, yet more change. That, too, has revealed itself within our close quarters. Surely, I knew it was coming. My boys are moving toward it rapidly. Yet I'm not sure I understand it, nor do I want to. I long for the children, the giddy, giggling people who were content with simple pleasures, but who now insist frequently they are somehow getting less bang for their status in life. They are bold, yet unsure, goofy, yet serious because they have begun to realize that life is complicated, and there are times when it is unfair, and no simple or easy solutions work. There is no magic formula, nor do I want them to believe that to be true. And yet I miss that time when they believed they were protected, safe, secluded, which was my illusion, and theirs as well. I can no longer hold the curtains closed. Life has revealed the complexities of a world that is quite confusing, unpredictable, even unprepared. How do we go forward?

Here's why I'm leaning into the movie Onward. (Warning: teeny spoiler)

Pixar's latest is the story of two elf brothers who set out on a quest. They are looking for an artifact that will bring back their deceased father for one day. The younger brother, Ian, has never quite respected his older brother, Barley. Instead, Ian has always wondered about his father, and what he missed. Unlike his older brother, he has no memories of his father, only stories told to him by others.

As the child of divorce, I spent a great deal of time wondering what it would be like to have a very involved father, one who would teach me things, be there for milestones, and provide the wisdom, affection and closeness I wanted. Like Ian, I had a mental list of what I might do with a reliable and present father.

It has taken me years to realize that between my mom and my older siblings I have had more father figures, more influence, and more love than I could have imagined possible. As young Ian realizes his deep love and appreciation for his brother, who has always been there for him, he realizes that he has had a reliable and present father. As Ian finally understands what he has, I, too, know what I have had.

I miss my mother and my brother. Yet I am not alone. The rest of us siblings have been texting one another, especially the last few days. As soon as the movie credits rolled, and I wiped the tears from my eyes, I sent a group message to them to let them know how much I appreciated all they have done for me, all they have taught me, and how much I miss them, particularly now, when we are unable to celebrate my brother's 80th by being together physically. Yet I still remember and celebrate his life, and the vastness of his gifts to me, his integral role in my becoming a pastor.

I am, we all are, inconvenienced and displaced by this disease, but that is the least of it. People are dying, loved ones are dying, many are out of work, and we could get sick too. In the midst of all the fears and worry, I recognized how much sibling love has shaped me and made me who I am. No matter what comes, I am going to say, onward. And I am going to say it to my children, who are siblings. Let's persevere together. Onward.

Picture credits: 1) Whitney Bordelon: My brother Jack's 75th birthday; 2) Pixar

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