Imagine finding out that your parents, having been married 54 years, were unhappy in almost all of them—and that you had no inkling because they hid it so well.
That’s what happened to Long Island documentarian Doug Block (112 Weddings, The Kids Grow Up) after his mother, Mina, died suddenly in 2002. Equally as sudden was his father’s remarriage three months later to Kitty, who his father had known for 40 years. Seeing the taciturn, 83-year-old Mike Block come alive and lavish affection on Kitty made Doug scratch his head. He sensed a backstory there, so he saw where his camera took him. The result is 51 Birch Street, titled after Doug’s childhood address, a quiet, nuanced, dismal, and riveting documentary about two incompatible people bound by social strictures and a house.
Doug Block delves deep, uncovering his mother’s diaries. Entry by entry, he discovers a Mina he never knew: a vibrant, opinionated woman done with her marriage but resigned to putting on a facade. She had fallen in love with other men and had at least one affair. In one entry, she insightfully writes that husband Mike should have married a woman like Kitty. Compared to the contentment she projects to friends and family, the inner longings in her journals are jarring.
Mike Block is cagier about his relationship with his late wife, becoming evasive when Doug asks him if there had been other women. But when Doug finally captures his father’s honesty, it’s breathtakingly raw. The last segment of the documentary shows Mike puttering in the martial abode. “Earlier in life, I would have died for (Mina),” he says. “Later in life, it meant nothing.” Well, damn.
Most of us are on Facebook and/or other social networking sites. We have married friends, and we assume they’re happy given the information they share. We’ve seen their smiling photographs—vacations, anniversaries, holidays—and then one day their status changes. Divorced. It’s come as a bit of a surprise at times, but we rapidly adapt and wish our friends well.
Mina and Mike Block’s terminal impasse status is impossible for us to wrap our thoroughly modern minds around. These were not people hailing from states of ignorance and megachurches; they were intelligent, well read.
The Block family was, however, a by-product of the dysfunctional 1950s, which possibly explains why Doug and his siblings were confounded by their father’s happiness. The Don and Betty Draper saga is improbable fiction; couples of that generation didn’t readily divorce, not even after the kids grew up. Like living in co-ed apartments and wearing white after Labor Day, it “just wasn’t done”.
The notion that it’s noble to be resigned to who you’re stuck with is odd in 2016. We are fortunate. We no longer abide marriages based on obligation, principle, or a variation of the sunk cost fallacy unless we consciously choose to do so. This intolerance isn’t as much of an expression of Rand-ian individualism as it is the imperative to be honest, transparent, and fair. The 1950s were none of these things.
Mike Block has since passed away, too. He spent seven years in sunny Florida with his Kitty, so he got a smidgen of a happy ending. After watching 51 Birch Street, I felt like I knew Mina and Mike Block. I liked them both equally. It’s hard not to wonder what could have been for them had they been born a decade later.
It’s also hard not to wonder if other couples their age still live at 51 Birch Street—and if perhaps some of them are people we know.