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The Constant Gardener

Much has been written about the revolutionary methodology (albeit, of the "why didn’t we think of that ourselves?" variety) behind Richard Linklater’s "Boyhood": The director filmed the four principal actors over 12 years, so that we watch their characters age realistically, the way you do when you see family members every year or so. (This may not seem extraordinary but the other night, when I stumbled upon the final scene of "A League of Their Own," in which the old girls’ baseball team meets as seniors, I thought, “Why does Geena Davis have all that junk on her face?”)

The rest of the attention has been heaped on Ellar Coltrane, the boy of the title, who goes from age six to eighteen with pit stops for heartache and confusion along the way. But the movie’s not-so-secret hero is his mother, played by Patricia Arquette. Yes, it’s novel to see a woman age the way most do — putting on weight, taking it off, changing her hair — but it is her constancy that is the glue of the film, and this boy’s life.

I saw "Boyhood" with my brother Ethan; our family broke up when I was ten and he was six. Our mother raised us, along with our sister April, by herself. She did not end up with a succession of losers, as Arquette’s character does; I don’t think she ever recovered from our father leaving her and she certainly showed no sign that she was looking for another husband. But she did move constantly, as the family in the film does, from one job to another. We changed towns and schools and moved to so many different houses that some stuff never got unpacked.

The thought that all nights, and every moment, is fateful is what sets "Boyhood" apart, and the consistent love and attention that emanates from the kids’ mother is at the heart of that idea.

But one thing that never changed was the sense that she cared, that she would do whatever it took to keep our family unit intact and each of us safe from harm. (And how we must have grieved her, one after the other, as we pursued the dangers associated with adolescence!) As crazy as I got, I knew that she would be there when I returned — kind of like Max did, in "Where the Wild Things Are," when he sails back to his bedroom after his epic adventures (even if my wild things were as much a product of acid as an angry imagination) — and that she could not rest until she knew I was OK.

Audiences spend much of "Boyhood" waiting for something bad to happen, and small wonder: The movies have trained us that way. If it’s a quiet family drama we’re watching, we know that there must be a car accident, a drug overdose, a fateful night of one sort or the other coming. The thought that all nights, and every moment, is fateful is what sets "Boyhood" apart, and the consistent love and attention that emanates from the kids’ mother is at the heart of that idea. (Their dad, played by Ethan Hawke in an appealing performance, shows a different kind of consistency, while making a good case for the right kind of weekend dad: He’s like Halley’s Comet in a ’68 GTO.) The mom is the patron saint of single moms everywhere: paying the bills, making ends meet, losing her shit now and then but never, ever running away. Never, ever saying die.

Emailing with Ethan later (he’d gone back to see "Boyhood" a second time with his wife, her father and their teenage son, Finn), he remembered seeing Mom at a peace march in Auburn, the little town we’d moved to when our family split up. It was 1969: I was a sophomore in high school and I was standing on the steps of the courthouse with a bunch of other town hippies, holding a banner with a peace sign, clad in my army jacket and torn jeans. Ethan had followed the march to the steps with some of his friends

“Someone said, ‘Hey, Elder, isn’t that your mom?’” he recalled. “Of course it was. Who else would have been there?”

I don’t even think she had come down against the war then; she had served in WWII and one of the biggest fights I can remember having with her happened about that time. We were in the car, driving back from one of our weekend outings to Sacramento, and I had said that if I were drafted (something that couldn’t happen for another four years), I would not serve. She was outraged and all but called me a coward. But there she was, that night (the march was in response to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia), watching me wave the peace flag, dressed, as she would say, like a bum.

And when I got home that night I found my supper waiting for me. And it was still hot.

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