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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Family Movies Part 3 - Mermaid

Mermaid is a television movie which was aired in the year 2000 on Showtime.

Rhonda Gill (Samantha Mathis) has recently been widowed, and she needs to cope with raising her little daughter Desiree, or Desi (Jodelle Ferland) by herself. When she is unable to do this, Rhonda is forced to move in with her mother Trish (Ellen Burstyn) in her childhood home in Yuba City. Desi has become self-enclosed, because she doesn’t understand why her father isn’t around anymore, and only speaks of herself in the third person.

When she learns that angels take people and messages to heaven, Desi wants to write a letter to her father. Her mother and grandmother help her write the letter so that her feelings, which make her lock herself away, might be released through it, so that she won’t be so sad anymore. Desi writes the letter, but is disappointed when she learns that the USPS doesn’t make deliveries to heaven. At the county fair Desi buys a mermaid balloon from the friendly cemetery caretaker (Blu Mankuma), and gets the idea to have the balloon take her letter to heaven, and at the same time wishes that her mom wouldn’t be so sad anymore. The balloon does make a delivery – not to heaven, but an almost 4,000 mile journey all the way to Canada, and Desi even gets an answer to her letter.

Though the movie deals with a serious and sad issue, its central theme is, as Shakespeare put it: “Love comforteth like sunshine after rain.” It is never said specifically how Desi’s father died, but a very brief flashback indicates that it was probably through an accident with a gun. When Rhonda struggles to cope with her sorrow and Desi’s troubles, Trish has a talk with her, and tells her that she should concentrate on what she has and not on what she doesn’t have. She has not been abandoned; there are people in her life who love and care for her. And the movie shows how Rhonda can count on the love and support of the people who want to help her and Desi.

The fascinating thing about the movie is that it is based on a real life. In October 1993 Rhonda Gill found her four-year-old daughter Desiree sobbing quietly in the family room. Desi was hugging a photograph of her father, who had died nine months earlier, crying: “Daddy, why won’t you come back?” Instead of adjusting to her father’s death, Desi refused to accept it. “Daddy will be home soon,” she’d tell her mother. “He’s at work.” When she played with her toy telephone, she pretended she was chatting with him. “I miss you, Daddy,” she’d say. “When will you come back?” November 8, 1993 would have been Ken’s 29th birthday. “How will I send him a card?” Desiree asked her grandmother Trish. “How about if we tie a letter to a balloon,” Trish said, “and send it up to heaven?”

On their way to the cemetery, the three stopped at a store and Desi picked a happy birthday balloon with a picture of a mermaid on it. The family arranged flowers on Ken’s grave. Then Desi dictated a letter to her dad, Trish wrote the message and their address on a small piece of paper, which was wrapped in plastic and tied to the end of the string on the balloon. Finally, Desi released the balloon.

On a cold November morning on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, Wade MacKinnon went duck-hunting at Mermaid Lake. Wade, a forest ranger, lived with his wife and three children in Mermaid, a rural community a few miles east of Charlottetown. At a cranberry bog he spotted Desi’s mermaid balloon. It had travelled over 3,500 miles from California to Mermaid. At home, Wade removed the wet note, allowing it to dry. When his wife, Donna MacKinnon, came home later, they read Desi’s note

After thinking about it for a while, Donna bought an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid from a Charlottetown bookstore, wrote a letter to Desi, tucked it into a birthday card, and mailed the gift to the Gills.

Desi’s fifth birthday with a small party was on January 9, 1994. Every day since they’d released the balloon, Desi had asked her mom, “Do you think Daddy has my balloon yet?” After her party, she stopped asking.

When the package arrived, Trish began to read the Little Mermaid book that the MacKinnons had sent. The story was different from the one Ken had so often read to Desi. In that version, the mermaid lives happily ever after with the handsome prince. But in the original Andersen fairy tale, she dies because a witch has taken her tail, and three angels carry her away. As Trish finished reading, she worried that the ending would upset her granddaughter. But Desi put her hands on her cheeks with delight. “She goes to heaven!” she cried. “That’s why Daddy sent me this book. Because the mermaid goes to heaven just like him!”

Mermaid is a cute and positive movie, despite the serious subject of death being constantly present. There is one short piece of dialogue with “SOB” and “hell,” but presented with disapproval. Make sure you watch the movie all through the ending credits, where the cast of the movie meets with the real Desiree Gill and her real mother Rhonda and grandmother Trish.

Mermaid can be watched for free on YouTube.

Read more:

Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid

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