The announcement came in the mail: "Bambi," the children's movie that put deer hunting roughly on par with poisoning your neighbor's collie, would be shown on George Washington's birthday at the McLean Community Center.
It has been, needless to say, a few years since I last saw "Bambi," and a lot has happened in children's movies. Would today's generation, raised on "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back," be able to stay awake through a movie about mere forest animals? And more to the point, would a 3-year-old who has been known to weep inconsolably at the mere music from "E.T." be able to hold herself together during "Bambi?"
Early Monday morning, I told my son, the 7-year-old, and my daughter, the 3-year-old, that I was taking them to see the movie. She was ecstatic. He said he had other things to do.
"A book report," he said.
I could tell "Bambi" was in for an uphill battle.
We arrived at the community center and found seats. The theater darkened. My daughter giggled with delight. She had only a vague idea that the story is about a deer. I was secretly hoping that 1) the movie wasn't like the book or 2) that she wouldn't understand what happens to Bambi's mother. How do you explain deer hunting to a child?
The movie began and we were transported into a magical forest, coming to life in the spring: birds, ducks, rabbits are surrounded by their young, and there, nestled in a grove, is Bambi's mother and Bambi.
Soon, my daughter had climbed out of her chair and into my lap. Before long, both she and my son were in stitches as Bambi tried to walk. Finally he learns and his mother takes him to the meadow. It is the first hint of hunters. Mercifully, it passes over my daughter's head.
Winter comes and the deer are caught in a terrible snowstorm. They climb higher in the mountain in search of food. One day, Bambi and his mother find the first growth of grass of the spring. Suddenly, Bambi's mother senses danger and orders him to run back to their shelter. A shot rings out. Bambi makes it to safety. His mother does not. Bambi runs out from his shelter, calling for his mother. The snow begins to fall and in the darkness Bambi's father appears to tell him that his mother can't be with him anymore.
"Where's Bambi's mother?" says my daughter. "What happened to his mother?"
The moment I'd been dreading had arrived. What do you say? Bambi's mother went away? What does that tell a child about mothers? She got sick and died? She got lost in the snowstorm? I took a deep breath.
"The hunters shot her."
"Why?" she said, uncomprehendingly. "Why did the hunters' shoot Bambi's mother?"
I had no answer. There is no way to tell a child about hunting for sport or that some hunters shoot deer for food, a rationalization I don't happen to buy.
"Is she coming back?" she whispered.
"I don't think so, but Bambi's father has come to take care of him."
"But why did they hurt Bambi's mother?"
"Because adults sometimes do some very cruel and foolish things."
She burrowed unhappily in my arms, her face clouded over, threatening to erupt in tears any moment. Then a doe appeared. My daughter sat bolt upright in my lap. "There's Bambi's mother!" she said, happily.
There is an argument for leaving a child with that comforting thought. There is also an argument, however, for not leaving a child with mistaken notions of accepted family living arrangements.
"Well, not exactly," I hedged. "That's his friend from when he was little."
"Well, where's Bambi's mother?" she insisted.
There was no way out."Bambi's mother got shot by the hunters."
At breakfast yesterday, her father asked her to tell him about the movie. She promptly described how Bambi ran out in the snowstorm, calling for his mother, and how his mother died. And then she said: "She got shot by the hunters and then Bambi's girlfriend became his mother."
It was her first encounter with the mindless cruelty of man and she was handling something that hurt the best way she knew how. By today's standards of special effects and space age epics, the Disney classic is a simple, almost quaint, movie. But to anyone with a heart it is also simply unforgettable.
Another deer lover has been born.