“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life”.
These are the final words in the last scene of what is commonly considered the finest movie of all time –Orson Well’s “Citizen Kane”. (NOTE: Spoiler Alert!!)
And yet, the image in the last scene suggests otherwise.
Charles Foster Kane, a narcissistic, egomaniac tycoon whispered his last word “Rosebud” on his death-bed, creating an intense curiosity throughout his circle for the meaning of this word.
In the final moments of the film, the camera pans over the inside of a huge warehouse full of crates of Kane’s possessions. The camera zooms down and over a small wooden sled, with the word rosebud embossed just above the figure of a tiny rose.
Two workers unceremoniously toss the sled into a furnace. The word and flower wither and melt in the heat as the sled burns, transformed into a black plume of smoke rising up and disappearing in the grey skies.
As the third person omniscient observer, we now know Kane’s dying memory and thoughts were around a rare happy moment of his boyhood– sliding in the snow on his wooden sled.
We are left wondering how this one childhood memory–influenced the arc of his life. I then ask myself, does my earliest memories hover over me, haunting me in the shadows throughout my life?
For all of us, are there fragments of memory lying deep underneath are conscious thoughts, forming and informing the choices and perceptions of our lives in the present moment?
My earliest memories are of events that happened well before I had the ability to form them into complete sentences. They are pictures in my mind– brief scenes, fleeting images. In that sense, they are almost archetypical—foreshadowing who I would become in time. They are not complete thoughts, but like Kane’s wooden sled, they are flashes of memory— evoking emotion and perceptions that continue to have a subtle influence even in my advancing years. What’s more, they seem to appear out of nowhere, like a darkened neon sign that suddenly comes on and draws me in.
These earliest of childhood memories are better, simpler, and seem more real than later ones–which may explain why they seem to remain vividly with us all the way to our end of life.
Are these childhood images my own ‘Rosebud’—floating in the background of my psyche, subtly pulling and pushing and prodding me one way or the other,subtly influencing my life now?
Between the ages of four and five years old, I lived in Pipestone, Minn., a tiny town in Southwest Minnesota with a population of around four thousand.
Pipestone derived its name from the natural red clay-like stone in the area with which the native Americans carved to make weapons and utensils.
Several flash images from these years emerge over and over again– images of eating raw rhubarb stalks from wild plants growing in the edges of our yard. I ate these stalks on warm summer mornings with a pinch of salt and sugar (to this day, rhubarb/strawberry pies are my favorite), as I sat on my front steps listening to the morning dove’s coo.
Then there is ‘Black-Jack’—a tall and lean old man, always in blue-jean overalls, handing out black-jack gum to all the neighborhood kids. I was afraid of him and yet excited to see him walking past our house.
Then there is a scene where my sisters and I get in trouble playing in a mud puddle just before Sunday Mass, then later waiting nervously for my turn as dad went from room to room to reprimand us.
Or the picture I have of me walking to the city pool with my mom, ecstatically jumping into the water, forgetting to take my shoes off, then getting a good Irish mother scolding.
I have an image also of walking past a dead man in an open casket at the local funeral home, and being afraid he would sit up and speak as I passed by.
I remember seeing my first downtown movie– the 1958 musical ‘Tom Thumb’—with the songs “Yawning Man, This is My Song, and Dancing Shoes forever stamped in my soul.
Or dressing as a skeleton in the school Halloween parade, or always looking down hoping to spot an old indian arrowhead the town is known for.
Why do these images from four and five years old have such a powerful hold on me after so many years? Why these, and not the hundreds of thousands of others?
Maybe they loom so large in my memory bank because I had not yet lived enough life to put these events in perspective. They were my earliest experiences in life and I had no others to compare them to— so they were each a new opening into this mystery of life. I labeled each one either good or bad, joyous or frightening–always outsized of what they really were. They lay hidden in the shadows of my thoughts, running behind life’s events like subliminal messages.
Is this where I began to evaluate all experiences as either good, safe, and enjoyable –or threatening?
Sometimes when these early childhood images re-appear, it’s as if I am standing above the scene and I can see this little boy—innocent, full of wonder, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes terrified, but mostly watchful, alert, and mildly anxious. A feeling of pity for this child comes over me–for he knows so little, yet is experiencing so much.
I wonder if that is how God sees us all, no matter what stage of life we are in—with pity and compassion, as we attempt in our own feeble way to try and put the unexplainable and uncontrollable into some meaningful perspective.
That is what I feel for Citizen Kane—pity, because at the end of his life, he had completely missed out on the those intangible’s in life that really make life full and worthwhile; love, intimacy, and charity to others
He missed discovering the truth that he had intrinsic value, unrelated to his performance or role in life. This is a discovery so many of us miss, and if we do not– we come to it late.
Because he could not see it within himself, his search for it in the outside world drove him to misery for himself and any one around him.
Whenever my own bits of memory emerge from their hiding place, it is my queue to remember to pay attention — to see myself as that four-year-old boy, sitting on the front steps eating rhubarb stalks, listening to the doves, and watching “Black Jack” lumber down my street, knowing that just as then, so it is today– I am always watched and cared for. I have never been alone.
Life rarely makes sense to me in the moment, yet I know that even if it doesn’t today, just wait. More perspective will always come.