The movie, The Last Station is a rich story about the marriage of Leo Tolstoy and his wife, the Countess Sophia. There is a power struggle between Tolstoy’s wife (Helen Mirren) and his advisor (Paul Giamatti). Caught between these two is Tolstoy’s secretary and it is through his eyes that we witness this struggle.
It’s clear to both the secretary and the viewer that there is great love between Tolstoy and his wife. We watch Sophia be overly dramatic and hysterical in her attempt to get her way. We watch Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) keep secret his plan to change his will in order to give his writings to the people of Russia at the expense of his estate and therefore Sophia. He betrays her by denying his intentions, insisting that she’s in wrong in her suspicions. We can easily see the mistakes both of them make: She overreacts and he moves away from her; then she overreacts in order to win his attention. It’s a sad pattern where both are manipulating and hardening their positions so there is no possibility of negotiating a compromise. Their dance is to hurt each other while each tries to win and it is painful to watch.
At the same time, there are small convincing moments that make it clear how well Sophia knows her husband. It is in the details of her knowing precisely what music he prefers to hear. The power of their 47 years of history with each other is demonstrated in their certainty of knowing each other. It is her name he whispers on his death-bed even after he has conspired in her banishment from his last days.
Families are groups of people who share history over time. History usually includes both the heroic moments and the shameful moments because we are human. History is bonding and connection. History can be as powerful as blood connections.
In the popular novel The Time Traveler’s Wife the central female character (Clare) doesn’t want to adopt a child because as she puts it, it would be “pretending.” She is underestimating, like many people who fear adoption that it isn’t good enough, the power of bonding through sharing a history over time. This is ironic because the love Clare and her husband have is unique and special because of their shared history over time.
It’s why I’m always surprised when my young adult clients report to me, that their parents have never invited visited them in their new homes. Not visiting is to miss out on that shared history continuing to build as deeply as it could. When grandparents only celebrate events in a grandchild’s life and miss the everyday, they’re missing out on building a history of ordinary moments together. When parents avoid meeting the new boyfriend, they’re going to miss out on knowing their child’s first love (even if the first love is a mistake, it matters). History, over time, shared together with the people you love really matters. It’s why I like my children to get together as young adults because they will continue to build on those moments without me as the intermediary. I want them to continue on past me and not drift apart.
It’s why I encourage my couples to learn the pattern of mixing in softness and vulnerability instead of just hardening their interactions with each other. The hardness is such an easy place for everyone to hide out in. Tolstoy hardens himself to leave Sophia, sneaking out in the middle of the night and leaving a goodbye note telling Sophia that he wants to live out the rest of his days relieved from her demands and concerns. Yet at the end of his life he refuses to let go until she is by his side. History together is a powerful achievement that too few of us learn to savor.