I suppose every family has at least one, a family member who, like Lenny in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" was kicked in the head by a horse when he or she was young. In my family, I guess it was my cousin Marc, who was a suicide about 30 years ago, slitting his wrists in a bathtub and letting his blood mix slowing, inexorably with the warm bath water.
In my wife's family, it is Aunt Louise, who lives alone in a now Puerto Rican neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Aunt Louise isn't a bad woman, she's harmless, actually, but now that she's pushing 80, she pretty much helpless too. Most people in the family can't take too much of Aunt Louise but my wife has a heart of gold and she had the old lady is over last night for Rosh Hashana dinner.
Mostly when Louise is over I let her talk without me saying too much. She's a woman without a great deal of intellectual resources and spends much of her time alone, so when she's out, you're bound to get a few hours of stream of consciousness. Enough to make you wish you were unconscious.
Nevertheless, regardless of how insipid and painful the evening, there are things we as humans must do for other humans. So we have Aunt Louise over. We show her pictures of the kids. We take her for a walk in the park near our apartment that overlooks the river. We even put together a care package so she has something home-cooked once in a while.
Even Uncle Slappy, who likes to be the center of attention when he is up from Boca, willingly played second fiddle last night. He's no fan of Aunt Louise, but like my wife, he's a warm, compassionate person. As important he understands that warmth and compassion make us more, not less, human.
Most people don't watch old movies like I do. And if they do, maybe they regard a great director like Frank Capra as saccharine and sentimental. I think in "The New Yorker's" review of "It's a Wonderful Life," they said the movie had a "cast-iron charm."
Nevertheless there's a bit from Capra's highly-relevant 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which Jimmy Stewart excoriates the Senate for being callous and greedy. He says, "I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too."
Today, I'm sorry, we seem all about rules and nothing about kindness. And looking out for the other fella? Well, in the words of Budd Schulberg's Sammy Glick, "going through life with a conscience is like driving with your brake on."