A Rosebud by Any Other Name

December 22, 2022 | Jim Angehr

Welcome to my Citizen Kane musings, part deux! Click over here to see the first part of what I imagine to be the final word that anyone will ever need to understand about this movie. At long last, the riddle of Citizen Kane has been solved!

Not really. And speaking of riddles, one of my minor victories in relation to Kane is that when I watched it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I had managed for decades to avoid being spoiled about the meaning of “Rosebud.”

My high school buddies were movie buffs, and they were gaga over Citizen Kane. Whenever they’d start talking about Rosebud, however, I’d insist on intimidating them into silence. Let me first see the flick!

Fast forward 30 years, and the Rosebud mystery was worth the wait. I’ll try to summarize without spoiling too much: Citizen Kane is a fictional biopic that traces the life of its title character from boyhood through old age. Near the beginning of the movie, we actually encounter Kane on his deathbed; as he breathes his last, he drops from his hand a snow globe and utters this cryptic, single word––“Rosebud,” which is overheard by another. Other players in the movie spend the duration attempting to figure out what Rosebud might mean.

The Rosebud MacGuffin impressed me in two specific ways. For one, Citizen Kane itself employs some pretty cool, meta-style misdirection about Rosebud’s significance. One exchange between two characters goes like this. “If you could've found out what ‘Rosebud' meant,” she reflects, “I bet that would've explained everything.” Her conversation partner replies, “I don't think so; Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe ‘Rosebud’ was something he couldn't get, or something he lost.”

So, which is it? Another person at the end of the film casts doubt on the whole enterprise: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess ‘Rosebud’ is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle—a missing piece.”

Equally remarkable is that to my surprise, Orson Welles does in fact finally reveal the meaning of Rosebud––and it pays off! (Lingering on, though, is the question that even if the viewers ultimately know what Rosebud is, how much does it truly explain?) I won’t reveal here the truth about Rosebud, but only read on if you can handle a mild spoiler. . .

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Rosebud turns out to be an object––I won't way what––from early in Kane’s life that comes to serve as a symbol, as near as I can tell, for the loss of innocence, and for regret.

This, consequently, is what I’m driving at: we all have our Rosebuds. Many of them. In the wake of my mother’s death last month, so much of my head- and heart-space since then has been wrapped up in remembering her. I recently recalled my quintessential Rosebud moment vis-à-vis my mom.

It happened maybe four years ago. My mom had first been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 2012, but by around 2018, she had moved from the mild end of this malady's spectrum of symptoms to pretty far in the other direction. In the winter of 2018, I threw away the last item of clothing that my mother had ever bought for me.

Well into my 30’s, Mommy kept me in clothes. From fancy stuff, to everyday shirts/pants/shorts, to coats/sweaters/outerwear, and finally to staples like socks and underwear, every Christmas and birthday I could count on at least a couple of new sartorial items from her. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, sadly, she became unable to shop for her family, which meant that my matriarchal supply chain eventually dried up. Mind you, everything that my mom ever got me STILL FIT JUST FINE, but clothes wear out after a while. For years I had worn around the house an old, grey fleece that had become increasingly ratty with time. As a Christmas present in 2017, Emily presented me with a replacement jumper; I wept when I put my old fleece in the trash can.  From then on, nothing I'd wear came from my mom.

Can an old fleece become a Rosebud? Sure it can. With every new frayed hem and coffee stain accumulated on that fleece, I further traced the arc of my mom’s decline. Regret and loss.

I’ve been an ordained pastor for going on 20 years now. Some of my modes of ministry have shifted a bit over the decades, but the baseline themes of what I attempt to convey via my vocation have (I hope) remained quite consistent: sin and grace, brokenness and hope, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The song remains the same.

Yet at the same time, the contexts with which I perceive the good news of Jesus engages have tended to morph as I've aged up. One of the big ones that has flickered onto my radar that I wasn’t aware of in my 20’s is, How do you deal with regret?

When we’re young, the open possibilities outnumber the closed doors, and we haven’t had enough time to mess up that badly. Now we have.

Enter our Rosebuds.

This Advent season, as the church of Jesus does every year, we remember anew that Christ has been born into this sad world, and that with him comes light in the darkness, hope in darkest winter. I’ve celebrated many Advents by this point, but more and more do I appreciate that Advent doesn’t merely look back but also looks ahead.

The church confesses that Christ has come. And that Christ has died, that Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again.

It’s that last part––"Christ will come again"––that’s the only thing in the universe that can relativize your regret. Life won’t end in loss.

“Rosebud” isn’t the last word.



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