In an earlier post, I mentioned a scene from the film Tender Mercies and asked what my handful of readers (that’s you) thought that Horton Foote, the screenwriter, was saying with it.
Mac Sledge, the character played by Robert Duvall, tells his daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin) that he does not remember singing “Wings of a Dove” to her when she was a small child. After she leaves, he stands at a window watching her drive away. Then we hear him singing that very song.
Does he lie to his daughter? It’s not unreasonable to believe that he is being honest. He genuinely does not remember. Sober now, he was rarely sober then. Maybe his alcoholism has robbed him of a priceless memory.
Or this. He never did sing that song to his daughter. But her memory of it is not mistaken. It’s the mystery of grace. She experienced his love for her in this way.
But here’s what I choose to think. Mac does lie to Sue Anne. He lies to her because the memory that he has of singing to his daughter is too precious to entrust to anyone, even Sue Anne herself (whom he has not seen in many years, after all, and understandably feels that he barely knows). Those pure moments are the only ones in his past that are not stained with guilt and shame. Until he met Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and sobered up, those memories were probably what kept him alive.
He’s been curled up around those memories for a long, long time. When she asks him to share them with her, he quails. He cannot trust her not to spoil them somehow.
And that is very, very sad. Because she is left in pain, and he is left alone. At the same time, it feels true to me. Don’t we all have at least one memory that is so crucial to who we are — or how we think of ourselves — that we cannot risk exposing it to the world? For fear that we might lose it somehow?
Later, after Sue Anne has been killed, Mac is weeding the garden behind the home he now shares with Rosa Lee and her son Sonny. He feels more alone than ever. “I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s Daddy died in the war, my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? See, I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.” Rosa Lee walks away without a word. And the camera shows, behind Duvall, the fields stretching away toward the distant horizon.