Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My childhood with Mary Poppins: Read to your children!

A recent Disney release sent me down memory lane again. It was "Saving Mr Banks" that chronicles, although some may argue distorts the story behind turning one of my favorite book series of my childhood, "Mary Poppins" into the successful Julie Andrews musical of the 1960's. The movie mainly focuses on the strained relationship that P L Travers- the author who was used to always getting her way and made herself into a proper, sophisticated English lady that wasn't fond of emotional displays, people or children for that matter, had with Disney and his ever commercial empire of joy as well as her difficult childhood in Australia. I'm less concerned with how accurate the movie really was. Travers who detested pretty much everything about the film, from casting to the cheerful tone and songs and was stubborn and difficult to work with in the film is shown to come around and is moved by the musical's closing act as she reflects on her own upbringing and loss of a father through flashbacks. But what I wanted to reflect on mostly, was what Mary Poppins meant to me when I was a child. I know that I've written before about how reading books shaped my childhood and I used to practically devour them growing up. "Mary Poppins" takes me to a period when I didn't do the reading. My mom did. She read to my brother and then to me, as her kids came seven years apart and she claimed that she loved getting to revisit those books and the zany, magical adventures they contained. When I was little, having my mom read to me was more fun than anything I could watch on TV, any place we could go or any game we could play. You just couldn't wait to find out what happens next. Getting comfy and waiting on the story to go on was pretty much a ritual and it was something you looked forward to. That's how my mom got my brother and me and any child in the family that felt that a book was too intimidating into reading- by reading to us first. It's funny how my favorites, the ones I remembered, where the three quintessentially British series- "The Borrowers", "Five Children and It" and "Marry Poppins". There was something fascinating about people having that upbringing. Being proper and polite, while sarcastic at once. Keeping up appearances, having afternoon  tea, dressing up for parties- it was so different from anything I could experience in communist Poland which at the time was grey and sad. I connected to those books quite strongly, because while my mobility was limited, these people were having the most incredible adventures you can think off. Defying laws of physics and reality, the only thing stopping them was imagination. Imagination I had plenty of. And through my mind I could make my life and the world around me as fascinating as I wanted.

Just like Travers I was conflicted about the Disney adaptation. It looked glorious, the songs were nice and I was a big Disney fan. The problem was the Julie Andrews role had nothing to do with the book. I don't even care that she's too pretty and young for Mary Poppins as the book clearly makes her older and rather plain looking. The Mary Poppins I knew, and what made the character so unusual was that she was snarky, sarcastic if not harsh, distanced and cold. As my mom did voices when reading different parts it was all reflected in how Mary spoke to people and she if needed could cut them down to size with a mean look. Demanding and controlling and yet, you had no doubt that she cared for and loved the children. And that contradiction made her stand out from any other nanny story that comes to mind. The movie also made me reflect on how through reading my mom gave me memories. It's something I look back on 30 years later as I watch clips of that old Disney film. That's funny when you think about it- written words, somebody else's story, yet it's a memory and a fond one. Read to your children. Make fond memories and inspire them, ignite their imagination as mine was.

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