How do you honor a parent? Frankly, I did not know until I was in college at Yeshiva University. My Torah learning career began late and my notion of honoring parents was vague. But once I studied the laws pertaining to honoring parents in the Bible, the Talmud, and Codes of Jewish law, honoring parents took on very specific meaning. It meant, for example, standing up when they entered a room, not openly contradicting them, serving them dinner first, taking care of them when they could not take care of themselves, providing them with food, clothing, and shelter.
Once I learned this, I began to understand how derelict I had been as a teenager, and I resolved to do better as an adult. Watching Nebraska reminded me of how inwardly comforting it is to be able to give respect and attention to a parent, especially when you know that a parent’s days are numbered. My parents have not been in this world for a long time, but I often think how nice it would be if I could speak with them, embrace them, and share with them the milestones of my life’s journey.
Nebraska begins with an image of an old man walking along a snow-covered road in Billings, Montana. He seems to be wandering aimlessly and a policeman picks him up and takes him to the police station. We learn that Woody Grant has decided to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a million dollars he thinks he has won in a mail-order sweepstakes. His son, David, greets him at the police station and brings him home.
It becomes clear that Woody is generally perceived by both family and friends as shiftless and incapable of taking care of himself. Even his wife feels he should be placed in a nursing home. David, however, has a different take on things. He sees his dad in search of mission, something to demonstrate that his life has meaning and that he still possesses value as a human being in spite of his advanced years.
Woody leaves the house again, and David tries to point out the futility of his quest in light of the obvious scam of the bogus sweepstakes. Woody remains determined and asks his son to drive him to Nebraska so that he can claim his winnings. David surprisingly agrees.
The trip is picaresque and uneventful at the same time. Despite a stop at Mt. Rushmore, Woody and David don’t talk much, but things happen that bring them closer together. Woody falls down and has to be brought to a hospital emergency room. He loses his false teeth and father and son have to search at night near railroad tracks to find them. They pay a visit to relatives they have not seen in a decade. David tries to ask his father for his input on his recent breakup with his girlfriend, but Woody offers little advice.
When word gets out that Woody has “won” a million dollars, old friends and relatives come out of the woodwork to remind Woody of old debts and former kindnesses to him and his family that need to be repaid. The local newspaper even takes his photo for an upcoming article. Sprinkled throughout these adventures are images and voices of people whom Woody knew in his youth. They paint a picture of a kind man with a trusting nature, who never could say no when asked for a favor and who served his country in the Korean War, very much unlike the laconic and ravaged old man we see today.
Nebraska is a thoughtful film that is awash in the images of life in mid-America and the ebb and flow of growing older. It is filled with memories, those of the past and those that are presently being formed. Their trip reveals an unspoken love that exists in spite of few words spoken. David, for all his outward simplicity, is a keen observer of life. He does not want to have any regrets about doing his best to make his father’s last years meaningful. Whenever his father falls, he is there to pick him up, no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant the task. In his consistent devotion to both the physical and emotional needs of his father, he is modeling what it means to honor a parent.