The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Stars Hollow, Revisited


Friday nights, Rory Gilmore visits her grandparents in Hartford, Connecticut. She brings her single mother, Lorelai, who had her at sixteen, and whom she mothers now. Emily Gilmore—all WASP reserve and twin sweaters—presides over dinners that invariably devolve into arguments. Lorelai is too irresponsible. Emily is too controlling. Rory—Ivy League-bound, carrying hardbound copies of Pushkin in her backpack—can do no wrong. The three women banter, sometimes (Emily Gilmore’s ferocious etymology of her friend Sweetie Nelson’s name rivals anything Aaron Sorkin ever penned); sometimes they argue; sometimes there are estrangements that last for weeks or for months.

They always find their way back to one other again.

Sunday afternoons, I visit my grandmother, in New York, at a restaurant. I bring my single mother, Linda, who had me at forty, and who nevertheless, in my grandmother’s presence, is still sixteen. Our lunches devolve into arguments: my mother is too liberal with me; my grandmother too old-fashioned. I am fourteen and studious, and so can do no wrong.

Emily drinks martinis. My grandmother drinks vodka in orange juice.

Lorelai is proud when her daughter inspires a drunken fistfight. My mother buys me bottles of vermouth because I should learn to drink sooner rather than later, and learn to relax a little.

Rory goes to a school called Chilton. I go to a school called Chapin. Our uniforms are almost identical.

Tuesdays, we watch Gilmore Girls: my mother and I at our apartment, my grandmother—across Central Park—at hers. We call each other during the commercial breaks. We do not even have to say anything. When Emily does something only my grandmother would do, my grandmother answers the phone, minutes later, laughing, with “I know, I know. I saw it too.”

I am fourteen and think there is nobody in the world I would rather date than Jess Mariano, who wears black leather jackets and bonds with Rory over Jack Kerouac. Who Rory dates matters so very much. I am fourteen, and I look at Rory and Lorelai’s relationship—the mother and the daughter who are best friends first, and everything else second—and I think: yes, this is me, and this is us, and although I know critics call this show unrealistic I think they must be wrong, because my mother and I are best friends and I cannot imagine a time when this will ever not be true.

I stop watching the show sometime around Rory’s freshman year at Yale, when I go away to boarding school, with Internet restrictions and poor streaming video. When I think of Rory, she is still wearing her Chilton uniform.

That was then.

Now I am twenty-four, and my grandmother is three months dead, and my mother and I do not really speak unless we have to. Like Rory, I am a journalist, or at least, I am trying to be.

I am on a reporting trip in Turkey. I spend three weeks on buses, traveling from concrete towns to refugee centers and back again. The world seems wide, and adulthood so precarious, and I wonder at least five times every morning if I have really grown up.

I spent at least forty hours on buses: crossing from Istanbul to the Mediterranean coast, from Mardin to Sanliurfa. I have downloaded the entirety of Gilmore Girls onto my iPad. The episodes, in those rare moments of down time between transcribing interviews and editing copy, are to be my frivolity, my fluff.

Instead, I find myself crying.

At first, I only cry whenever Emily Gilmore is onscreen: whenever she nags Lorelai about what is or is not “appropriate for a young girl,” to use one of my grandmother’s favorite words; whenever she is terrifying in her elegance, because when my grandmother was alive she hated it whenever I saw her without her makeup, even when she was in the hospital, even after chemo; because I was closer to her than to anyone in the world, and she’s been gone for three months, and I still dream about her.

Then, I start crying at everything else.

Stars Hollow is so different, after all, and Rory is so young. When she and her first love Dean break up on the floor of a dance competition, because she has feelings for Jess, who wears a leather jacket and does not know how to handle a relationship, it is sad and beautiful but it is also inevitable, not because Jess is the love of Rory’s life, but because you don’t ever get to hold onto the first boy you kiss, and probably not the second, either, and because for Rory, as Lorelai says, it’s probably time for a Jess.

I cry when Jess treats Rory terribly: when he breaks their dates, forgets to call. I cry because the first time I watched this show, it seemed normal to me that boys would do these things, because, after all, they did them to me, too. I cry when Rory hides from her mother the fact that she takes Jess back, over and over, and pretends like nothing’s wrong because she’s so ashamed of her own weakness, which she doesn’t know is youth.

I cry every time Lorelai tells Rory how proud she is of her, because I know mother-daughter relationships are never that perfect, not even if you promise each other they will be.

And I cry over every single Friday night dinner, because Emily Gilmore is drinking a martini, and because for all her meddling and her talk of what is or is not appropriate for a young girl, she loves her granddaughter.

I find myself relating, more and more, to Lorelai: seeing the show through her eyes. I watch Rory make mistakes—putting up with Jess, letting him break her heart, sleeping with Dean now that he’s married to somebody else—and I am furious with her but now, more than ever, I understand her. I want the best for her. I want her to grow up, but I know there’s no way she can do that without being an idiot, sometimes. I understand the mistakes she’s making, and the selves she’s trying on.

I cry when Rory gets into Yale. I cry when she graduates from Chilton. I cry when she loses her virginity to Dean, when she is caught by her mother, when they argue about whether or not it was right for Rory to sleep with her married ex-boyfriend, and of course it isn’t, and of course Rory knows that as much as anybody but when she argues she tries so hard to convince herself it isn’t true.

The later seasons of Gilmore Girls get criticized, frequently, for Rory’s downward spiral: for her stealing a boat, dropping out of Yale, for her estrangement from Lorelai and her descent into the maelstrom of the D.A.R, for her sense of entitlement and for the ease with which she—cosseted by Stars Hollow, by rich grandparents and, in later seasons, a rich boyfriend—can coast through life. And these criticisms are sometimes warranted.

But it is the show’s willingness to let Rory—so often perfect, so often terrified of imperfection—screw up, to be awful for a full half-season, that makes Gilmore Girls so great. Rory—like so few teenage heroines on TV—is allowed to grow up, to change. She tries on personae that don’t fit—a “casual dating” situation with Logan, a D.A.R. matron-in-training—and in knowing who she isn’t, Rory comes to learn who she is. Her mistakes form her. They may be hard to watch—portions of Season 6 are harrowing—but they are honest. Perfect Rory is allowed to be downright unbearable for a while. And Gilmore Girls is brave enough to treat this as normal.

This is not the Rory I remember, in her Chilton uniform, a book in her bag. The Rory I wanted to be, or thought I was, when I was young enough to see the show through her eyes.

But this is the Rory I need now.

This is the Rory I need for sleepless nights in Turkish monasteries and border-crossings, for those moments when I wonder am I doing this right? and is this how I’m supposed to be an adult? and does everyone know what they’re doing but me?

A reminder that it is possible to lose sight of everything you think you are and find yourself again. A reminder that it’s okay to grow up. That mothers and daughters fight, and that even Lorelai and Rory can spend a season estranged from one another.

They always find their way back to one another again.

It’s still hard to watch those Friday night dinners, now that there are no Sunday brunches. It’s hard to watch Emily Gilmore talk about what is and is not “appropriate” without thinking of my grandmother saying those words, without thinking of how much she loved me when she said them. It’s hard to watch Lorelai and Rory be best friends, over so many cups of coffee, knowing that my mother and I will never have that, and maybe we never did.

But watching those later seasons of Gilmore Girls on all those night-buses, in so many Turkish cities, watching Rory lose her way, I finally allow myself to accept how the story ends: even in the fantasy-land of Stars Hollow, we are allowed to make mistakes, to be a little unbearable, sometimes. And the people we love the most will go on loving us back, all the same.

And Friday night dinners never stop.


Featured image credit. All other photos provided by author.

Tara Isabella Burton's work on religion, culture, and place can be found at National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Al Jazeera America, Smithsonian, The BBC, The Atlantic,and more. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, Shimmer, PANK, and more. She is the winner of The Spectator's 2012 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She has recently completed her first novel. More from this author →