The new Netflix series, “My Love,” is among the most intimate, richest and most thought-provoking things I’ve seen on the screen in years. Each of the six episodes follows a couple over the course of a year; each couple lives in a different country – and all the couples have been together for at least 40 years.
I became curious about the series when Vermont Public Radio ran a brief interview with the director of the first episode, which follows Ginger and David Isham of Williston. While at first the Ishams seem to lead a picture-book Vermont life, making maple syrup with their family in the sugarhouse behind their beautiful farmhouse, the film is both touching and light-hearted as it quietly raises profound questions about aging. They visit Ginger’s brother, an Alzheimer’s patient, in a nursing facility, but she and David are fortunate to share their house with their son and his wife, so when they visit an expo for the elderly, Ginger can politely deflect sales pitches for retirement communities. However, they’re not in denial: as the seasons pass they matter-of-factly address their advancing age. They consult a lawyer about their will, and a funeral director about arrangements for cremation and the disposition of their ashes. Ginger decides that hers will be buried next to her parents’ grave in Bristol, while David asks wistfully if his can be scattered at the edge of the field where he’s spent so much of his life; he’s gratified to learn that they can. In the meantime, they make the most of every moment, playing cards with friends, hulling strawberries for the Fourth of July ice cream stand, and walking, even in the depths of winter; Ginger is delighted that it’s snowed – “This is snow-man snow!” she exclaims, and later makes a snowman with her grandson. They sing, and they hold hands a lot.
The second episode follows Augusto and Natí in rural Spain, where they and five other elders are the only ones left in their mountain village. Although their house is modern, with electricity and hot water, in some ways the villagers live as they might have 100 years ago, tilling, planting, and harvesting by hand, and resisting the depredations of wild boars. Augusto’s and Natí’s health is more precarious than the Ishams’, and they face their situation both obliquely and directly: Augusto remarks that while they used to think that people who’d lost their partner late in life were crazy to look for a new one, now he understands: waking up alone is too hard.
In the third episode, Kinuko and Haruhei live in a high-rise apartment in Kawasaki. We meet Haruhei first; Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, gnarled his hands and pulled the skin on his face. We learn that Hansen’s disease was considered so utterly shameful that after Haruhei’s diagnosis at age 15, his father suggested that they both commit suicide. Haruhei was exiled to a community for lepers until Kinuko, a nurse, persuaded him to leave it and re-enter the world; his gratitude to her guides his life.
While these individuals, their relationships within their couple, and their cultural contexts are all different, they all offer quiet lessons to viewers – specifically to older viewers, but really to anyone. As much as possible, the couples maintain their daily life, whether it’s walking (even in the snow in Williston), picking corn to sell before the boars can get it in Spain, or hanging up “a mountain of laundry” on the balcony in Japan. They maintain connections to family, neighbors and friends outside their couple, and to nature: even Haruhei and Kinuko, living in their urban high-rise, track the blossoming of fruit trees in the spring and note whether Mt. Fuji is visible on a given day.
Above all, this sweet series show how gratitude sustains these three couples, even through hard times. Gratitude lets them let go of disagreements and look for ways to accommodate each other; gratitude lets them look back at their long shared past and focus on good memories, and gratitude infuses their appreciation of every moment and of each other. At the end of a long day, as David and Ginger Isham settle into bed and kiss good night, David says, “Today was a good day.”