I had already been bludgeoned in the stomach by the sudden death of Carrie Fisher, and was just about to scramble up when 2016 pummeled me in the back when hearing about the death of Debbie Reynolds. It sent me into a tail spin of funk and darkness that I can’t quite explain, although I will try to make sense of it in this blog.
Like many Americans, I never knew Carrie or her famous mom personally, but this loss felt deeply personal. For that, I need to tell you a little bit about my personal history.
As some of you know, I was born and raised in the Netherlands; I remember one Christmas holiday when I was seven or nine, and the family was getting noisier and more boisterous with the increased intake of wine and delicious food, which made me sneak off to the television set where I became hooked, watching Singin’ in the Rain for the first time. I had learned many boring facts about America in school and the country didn’t interest me in the least, aside from the fact that my parents always talked glowingly about the generation of Americans who had risked and given their lives to liberate Europe from Adolf Hitler and his thugs.
I was completely smitten: the music, the dance, the perfection, the joy, the optimism, the innocence, the civil and polite dialogue, the enthusiasm— the movie radiated 1950s America when America had triumphed over evil, became a super power and helped out Europe with the Marshall Plan. This was the America that would keep us safe, for it had not only liberated the Netherlands but also helped liberate the Dutch East Indies where my great-uncle had been killed by the Japanese, while his wife and kids had been starving in one of the many Japanese death camps.
The glamor and good cheer of Singin’ in the Rain exuded America’s poise and confidence, and, if you will, its essential goodness and freedom, made possible by that great generation of young men and women who had put their lives on the line for a part of the world so very distant from their plains, prairies and skyscraper cities. Of course the Russians and British were responsible for this remarkable feat as well but it was America, in my mind, the likes of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds who seemed to personify that new world order of American grit and grace.
Singin’ in the Rain may well have opened my mind and seduced me with the fascinating mythology of America and before I knew it, I was studying in Chapel Hill where, to my joy, I got to know Americans in person for the first time; they were generous, hospitable and kind, just like Debbie Reynolds— the first month, humid and with buzzing cicadas I had never heard before, felt like being on a movie set. I felt an euphoria that I can still remember but alas, can’t recreate in this day and age.
I got a Ph.D. in American Literature, married an American husband and made an American life for myself, never once looking back, for if you can live in the California of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds what could go wrong?!
Last night, Jon and I watched some scenes of Singin’ in the Rain, to honor Reynolds. I expected the movie to have aged (it has not), and found myself in a complete time warp: sitting in my parents’ smoke-filled living room again, hiding from the noise, and devouring the song and dance of this classic. It brought back a sense of that time (not the 1970s when I must have watched the movie for the first time) but the 1950s which made me nostalgic— a much slower time, a less narcissistic, less self-indulgent time, a time when people connected in person rather than through internet snarkiness on social media.
As some of you know, I’m helping out Nextdoor, dealing with some of their abuse and conflict cases, which means I get to suspend people’s accounts when they misbehave. I’ve been called every word in the book for suspending people’s accounts and many an American has told me to fuck off. I have had Americans wishing cancer on me and my family, and, last week, an American Trump voter told me to “go suck a dick, bitch” after I restricted his account access.
So when Debbie Reynolds died, I realize now, this wasn’t a mere Hollywood actress dying but it signaled the end of an era and the slow demise and decay of an America that I had become so infatuated with.
I don’t want to turn this into a political blog about Trump who has already soiled the reputation of this country beyond repair, but I do want to ask my fellow Americans to hold onto the decency of what Debbie Reynolds and her generation represented: they were the first generation at a time when America became a beacon of light and freedom in the world, by engaging with the world, and not turning its back on it. Knowing evil when they saw it, they held rogue nations like the Soviet Union at arm’s length, and, yes, there were foreign policy failures (Vietnam, Iraq) but the decency, generosity and fairness, I knew, would always prevail. Now, however, I’m not so sure..
So Debbie Reynolds died, and sad to say, with her death, the America I fell in love with as a 7-year-old is no more… or will it have the resilience to bounce back? I hope to stay inspired by the likes of Debbie and Carrie…and Gene: it may be pouring in the next four years, but as a country, we need to keep on singing, singin’ in the rain…