On Borrowed Time

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

On Borrowed Time is a 1939 film about the role death plays in life, and how we cannot live without it.  Set in a more innocent time in small-town America, the film stars Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi and Cedric Hardwicke.

Lionel Barrymore plays Julian Northrup, a wheelchair-bound man, who with his wife Nellie, played by Beulah Bondi, are raising their orphaned grandson, Pud. Another central character is Gramps’s beloved old apple tree.  By making a wish, Gramps has made the tree able to hold anyone who climbs.

One day the fedora-wearing Mr. Brink (the personification of death, played by Cedric Hardwicke), who has recently taken Pud’s parents in an auto wreck, comes for Gramps. Not knowing who he’s talking to, a crotchety old Gramps orders Death off the property. Later, Mr. Brink takes Nellie, and then returns again for Gramps. Now realizing who Mr. Brink is and determined not to die, Gramps tricks Death up into the old apple tree where he must remain until Gramps lets him down. While stuck in the tree, he can’t take Gramps or anyone else, for that matter.

Meanwhile, Pud’s aunt (his mother’s sister), has designs on Pud and especially the money left him by his parents, and Gramps spends much time fighting off her efforts. Gramps is also fighting efforts to have him committed to the insane asylum for claiming that Death is trapped in his apple tree. He proves that no one can die until he allows Death down from the tree by shooting the man who has come to take him to the asylum – the man lives, when he should have died.

Gramps’s doctor is now a believer, but he tries to convince Gramps to let Death down so people who are suffering can find release. Gramps refuses – he has to remain alive to take care of Pud and keep the wicked aunt away from him. But Mr. Brink manages to coax Pud to climb the fence Gramps had built around the tree to protect people from Death – any person or animal who touches the tree dies. Pud balances on the top of the fence and then falls, crippling himself for life. Distraught, Gramps takes the boy out to the tree and begs Death to take them both, which he does – and both Gramps and Pud find they can walk again.

The final scene has them joyfully walking together up a beautiful country lane, listening to Grandma calling to them from beyond a brilliant light.


As a child, I saw this movie on TV sometime during the late 50s; and I have never forgotten it.


My grandparents and many of their siblings immigrated to the US through Ellis Island in the 1800s.  Some settled in PA, and my grandparents settled in MI.  They had five sons and three daughters. Everyone married and there were dozens of cousins.  

As extended families often did back then, various family members lived together at various times.  In my grandfather’s home was me, my mother, father, Aunt Mollie, Uncle Henry, and my older brother who joined the navy when I was 5 and he was 16.  He didn’t want to fight in Korea; so before he graduated and got drafted, he dropped out of HS and joined the navy.  My grandmother died before I was born; and my grandfather died at age 84, when I was 8 or 9.  I use to help (?) him in his flower garden, and we watched tons of cowboy movies together that were old even then.   When I wore out my welcome with one adult, I always had someone to move on to who was delighted to see me.  

Christmas and New Years were large, loud and happy family celebrations.  All eight of the children would bring their families to my Grandpa’s house to celebrate the holidays.  My aunts all cooked the greatest home made Italian meals, while the children played and the men argued through their Pinochle game.   The arrival of Santa (Uncle John) was anticipated with much singing and dancing to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Jingle Bells, and other merry Christmas songs.  We always knew when Santa had finally arrived because Rudolph (Uncle Jim) would knock his red nose (flashlight) on the basement window and fire crackers would explode just as Santa was about to burst through the door with his sack of toys shouting ho, ho, ho – Merry Christmas.  New Years Eve was another huge family party comprised of good food, singing and dancing. Midnight was greeted by hats, horns, and two relatives, often drunk, dressed up as baby New Year and the old man.  

Our family also enjoyed many years of Sunday family picnics at parks and at my uncle’s farm.  Everyone played.  Adults, kids, men, women jumped rope, played baseball, and tug of war.  The kids (me) ate peaches right off the trees as we rode in the trailer behind the tractor through the orchards.  We would return from the trip sticky and with peach fuzz stuck in our cheeks.

My mother always worked, and Aunt Mollie kept the home fires burning.  When I came home from school for lunch, Aunt Mollie was there with homemade soup.  When I was sick or hurt, there was no comfort like being in her arms.  Uncle Henry was kind and always willing to play with me.  

My mom bought me pretty hats, purses, and frilly dresses that were the worst.  I didn’t hate them because they were dresses or frilly. I hated them because frilly dresses always had picky inside seams that felt just awful against my skin.  I would whine, wiggle, and complain until she couldn’t help but give in and take them off me in pure exasperation.

My father grew up during hard times in a hard neighborhood.  Gun shots were a familiar sound, and his sister dated and was killed by a member of the Purple gang.  Dad was an amateur fighter, and his idea of affection was a punch in the arm that was meant to be loving but always hurt at least a little.  

I lived and went to elementary school in a black neighborhood in Detroit.  I was one of only three white kids in my entire grade.  They called me cracker, pulled my ringlets (yes, ringlets), and picked on me as much as I would let them.  This, my father, and having three boys for playmates taught me to be tough and to defend myself.  Without a doubt, I was a tomboy.

When I turned 20, I married a boy who is still my husband.  We had one child, who had three boys.  We did our best to keep the family traditions alive for our daughter, and she for  her sons.  With the help of my four parents, our daughter has childhood holiday memories similar to mine, but my grandsons – not so much.  

February 5, 2008 my mom died.  With her went the last of that large Italian family that gave me so much happiness as a child.  At first, I was relieved to be free, free at last.  After 10 years of elder care, seven years in my home, I was desperate for relief, a life, privacy, freedom, and the opportunity to reconnect with my daughter and my grandchildren.  With hospice, I helped five people die, three in my home; and I desperately needed time for life.

It is now 10 months later, and I am finally able to feel grief for my mother’s death. And with that grief, all the memories of Christmases past and the people that I loved, loved me, and that I will never see again make me wish that death was still up that tree.  


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    • dkmich on January 1, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    happy memories and a happy new year.   With that, I am off to the funeral home.  Neighbor, 60, cancer.  

  1. …and expressed dkmich.  Although the unimportant, outer circumstances are different, you captured the essence where our lives are all alike.  Really took me back to my experiences of these things in my childhood and life.

    Oh the cherished memories.  Thanks.  

  2. My great-grandparents immigrated from Germany when they were children.  Although Great-grandfather Haysler died when my mother was only five, his wife, Mamaw, lived to sit with us for a five generation picture taken when my daughter was botn.  The large family holiday gatherings, the weddings in Mamaw’s parlor, and the acres and acres of books and quiet places to read them are the fondest memories of my early life.  When Mamaw died, the family lost its grande dame.  My grandmother’s holiday table held fewer people, and my mother’s fewer still.  My husband and his parents and I spent the last three years of holidays as guests in someone else’s home, thank God for them, or at the casino, happy to be free of the cooking and cleaning up at home.  My mother-in-law is old, I am a working girl, and the family is scattered and prefers to spend their holidays at home, although some of them occasionally meet us at the casino.  I guess this reflects something universal about this brave new world. My great-grandmother wouldn’t like it a bit.  

    • dkmich on January 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm

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