What They Had
by writer/director Elizabeth Chomko
Seventeen years ago, I was given the news of my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I was devastated for her. She was 68, young for such a thing and younger in spirit, sharp as a tack, a red-headed, heart-centered woman who demonstrated her Irish heritage in a work ethic and generosity of love that brought her to the highest levels of administration in, ironically, geriatric nursing.
I was perhaps more devastated for her husband, my grandfather. He adored her and had all his life. They were small town Illinois farm kids who grew up together and married young, and forty years and four kids later were still in the throes of the sweetest kind of love affair. They’d bicker and flirt over breakfast; she’d climb into his lap and kiss him all over; they were better together and never apart, and her diagnosis seemed like the cruelest end to such a love story.
I grew up in and around Chicago, in a family with unshakable faith in God and the power of laughter. We’d leave Mass on Sunday and sit around the table over corned beef and Irish soda bread, one-upping each other with good-natured teasing until we were laughing so hard we were in tears. After my grandmother’s diagnosis I assumed we would lose this joy, this love of life and laughter, that nothing again could ever be so funny. But if anything, we laughed harder, the way you do when you know what you stand to lose, when you know your heart is just about to break.
I wrote What They Had as a means of working through this generational grief. I wrote it for myself, and for my mother, and for her brothers, to preserve for us a memory that I now understood we’d all eventually lose. I wrote it for all the reasons I had always written—to figure out things I did not understand, to find some workaround for loss, to find some order in things that felt un-orderly and unfair.
Making the film felt like cheating death. It was granting my grandparents new life, getting to know them better and deeper, as an adult rather than as a child. It was returning to Chicago, the place I left when I was fourteen but still feels like home. And it was reckoning with myself, the woman I’d become, holding up a mirror to determine how much that woman was serving me, serving other real women I knew, wondering what our culpability was for that, what kind of courage it might take to confront those things and step out on the other side.
I could not have dreamed of a more gifted group of collaborators to share in the telling of this story. I am endlessly proud of their contributions and astonished by the great care they took in each of their roles. I am outrageously lucky to have been able to make this film with these wonderful people, to learn from them, to be trusted by them, and to hand over to them the preciousness of my family’s lore. They understood the spirit in which it started—as an act of love—and made it an act of love of their own.
And while nothing could change the end of my family’s story—we now have a beautiful addendum. With love, we share it with you.