Pre- and Perinatal Insights in “Coat of Many Colors”

In light of the Dolly Parton’s notoriety, and the relative fame and common awareness people have of her song for which the movie is titled, Coat of Many Colors is, in my estimation among the most potent contemporary creative expressions highlighting pre- and perinatal concerns for American culture, communities and families today. This is particularly because it is closely based on true accounts of Dolly’s life with her family, and it was produced under the watchful and discerning eye of Dolly, herself.

The influences of prenatal life, birth and the loss of a baby that are actually central to the story, especially through the characters most directly impacted by them, are; prenatal bonding and attachment of the mother, including prenatal communication, sibling attachment, postpartum depression for the mother and the devastating effects of it on the whole family, the exquisite importance of the father’s role, lost in agony and obscurity for the father, and the profound influence of these and other related challenges on our culture when seen through a wide-angle lens. It is the profound cultural influence that Coat of Many Colors captures in such raw, rare form. It is not that Dolly Parton, her childhood family or what they went through is extraordinary—it is precisely that the profound importance of prenatal life and birth that this made-for-TV movie brought into the living rooms and into the hearts of over 12 million viewers is happening to families every day all over the nation, and the world. The difference being that for millions of people, these challenges and their impacts are suffered and adapted to out of sheer psychological and physical survival, while the emotional and spiritual truths are often never accurately seen, expressed or shared for restoration and healing.

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born fourth of 12 children, in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, in January, 1946. Her mother, Avie Lee Parton, was pregnant so consistently that she developed a system for her older children to help with the new babies. Dolly said, “Mama—when she was going to have another baby—she would say to the older ones, ‘Now this is going to be your baby,’ meaning you’re going to have to pay a little extra attention, you’re going to have to help a little more, you need to diaper the baby, you need to help rock it, or just take care of its needs because Mama had a house full of kids. So she assigned different babies, and my baby was to be a little boy that was born and lived just a few hours. His name was Larry, so we used that in the movie. I was just at the right age and I could not wait for that baby, and the baby died and it just absolutely killed me because death was a foreign thing to me and it was just a horrible thing, not only for my mother, but for me. So we showed, too, how that affected the family, Mama’s and Daddy’s relationship and different things during that time.”

Thus, in 1954, when Dolly was 8 years old, the seed was planted for the prenatal sibling attachment that could arguably be said to mirror her mother’s, only from a child’s perspectives. The gradual development of the pregnancy was an opportunity for strengthening connection and attachment in a triad among Avie and Dolly, and their mutually-shared love and anticipation for and with the baby, Larry They talked to, sung to and hugged and stroked the baby together consistently. Within the second or third scene of the movie, Avie recognized Dolly’s innate depth of attachment to the baby and she tells Dolly’s father, Robert, “This baby means the world to Dolly; it’s like they are heart twins.”

The symbol reflecting the importance of prenatal and birth influences on our culture, the coat, enters the picture by means that are most revealing about the hidden depths of stories and truths about the origins of emotional impacts and the events that inspire them. Dolly wanted “her baby” to have a pretty baby bed. So, she finger painted the small wooden cradle with flowers and butterflies. Avie, in turn, had recently had donated to her a hodge-podge box of rags—scraps of material perfect for the creation of a patch-work quilt for little Larry—brightness to match Dolly’s intention in painting the cradle. The making of the quilt becomes a focal point for mother and daughter in communing with the baby and planning for the birth. The transformation of the baby’s blanket into Dolly’s Coat of Many Colors, “. . . just like Joseph’s, in the Bible,” becomes the catalyst for the entire family’s journey out of the pit of postpartum depression, back to the ability to function in their lives, touch each other emotionally and spiritually, and rekindle joy. All of this, one would never know, listening to Coat of Many Colors, the song.

Dolly wrote another song, Angel Hill, expressed purely of her love for Larry and the experience of his death. To date, I have not found it released publicly, except sung as a duet by little Dolly, played by Alyvia Lind, and big Dolly, as she was known on the movie set. Adult Dolly’s singing of this song is done as a voiceover; she does not appear as an adult in the movie. The singing of the song spans the bridge between Dolly sitting on her mother’s lap, singing it to Larry in the womb, to the events of his birth and death, where adult Dolly’s adult voice interjects into the song to emphasize the lifelong import.

 Angel Hill
by Dolly Parton, for Larry Parton

I close my eyes; I can see your sweet smile;
I can count all your fingers and toes.
I can imagine the scent of your skin.
I can’t wait to see you up close.

Can’t wait to touch you, to hold you to rock you,
to know you’ll forever be mine.
Words can’t describe what I feel inside . . .
. . . .
flowers bloom on yonder hill.

You are my promise, my gift from above–
my heart runneth over from all of this love.

Oh, how can this be true?
They say that God took you; they say that He needed you more.
Said I shouldn’t question, that God is perfection.
But, me; I’m not really so sure.

My heart is broken; my hurt can’t be spoken.
Surely God cares how I feel.
I’m gonna miss you, but I’ll be here with you
on this spot they call Angel Hill.

My angel, I love you, I have and I will
for as long as the flowers bloom on Angel Hill.
Now you’ll sleep beneath them, your little heart still,
and I’ll meet you in Heaven if it be God’s will.

I’ll meet you in Heaven.
I can’t wait until . . .

Representative of the shock for everyone going through this experience, the missing stanzas of the song at the pinnacle between Larry’s life and death struggle during birth are drowned out by Dolly’s oldest sister, Willadeen keeping Dolly away from the scene. Those lyrics and their meaning lost, as if overtaken by the mental and emotional fog that shock produces.

Avie’s consuming postpartum depression, Dolly’s grief, which she said, “seemed to take up all the room I had inside,” and the malaise that overtook the whole family lasted for more than a year. Anyone in doubt of the pervasive biochemical power to thwart a woman physically and emotionally need only look at examples like this. For children of a mother in postpartum depression, the consequences are especially cruel. In Willadean’s words, “Mama ain’t cookin’, she ain’t messin’ with the kids, and she ain’t eatin. And, Dolly’s not singin’. I’m doing the best I can [to fill her mother’s shoes taking care of kids and toddlers], but I’m not Mama and I never will be! This family is fallin’ apart.” Did Avie Parton suddenly stop loving her eight beautiful children, who all needed her love and wanted her to feel their love for her? No; yet, she could not of her own accord move past still feeling her baby move inside her and, “being caught between two worlds,” in the adult Dolly’s narration, “causing her to sit very still.”

The baby’s father, Robert, was at Avie’s side through the birth and holds Larry through his last breath. Characteristic of our society, particularly for that time and not so far removed from some father’s experiences today, Robert’s backbreaking investment in providing for his family is duly appreciated, but his grief and his perspectives in grief for his little lost son are chronically missed, ignored or minimized, favoring only Avie’s needs. At one point, as Robert is expressing his sincere anger at God, Willadean admonishes him that he “ought not to joke about Mama’s faith. It hurts her,” and how he better go and do Avie’s bidding. In the next scene, Avie is yelling at Robert, “I’m the one who lost my baby!” When Robert and Avie finally find enough perspective for a conversation, Robert pleads, “What do you want from me? We’re not sleeping as man and wife; you don’t want me to discipline the kids; everything has changed . . . I can’t get my bearings.”

Ultimately, at Robert’s urging, it was Avie’s original passionate investment in Dolly’s gifted voice, which grief had silenced in her little girl that brought Avie the drive to make her way back to her family. Through transforming Larry’s blanket into a winter coat for Dolly, Avie found a slow rhythm to express her pain in a generative way. In turn, the coat-of- many-colors became the catalyst for Dolly to express the full range of emotions bottled up inside her, while at the same time growing up into new-found emotional maturity and compassion.

Throughout the film, the conversations between Dolly and both of her parents are priceless pearls offering doors and windows to some of the healing through connection our families are crying out for, often in unseen ways today. In one of the most revealing scenes of the story, when Avie and Dolly get their first opportunity to talk with each other about Larry’s death, Avie tells Dolly that during her pregnancy, she had visions that Larry was not coming to stay. Dolly reacted declaring, “Why didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t be hurting so bad; I wouldn’t have . . .”
“You wouldn’t have what?” Avie prompted gently, “You wouldn’t have loved him?” As Dolly sheepishly nods, her mother gently takes her face in her hands telling her never to be sorry she has loved. “Love is the greatest power there is. Love is even greater than death.”

With respect to the power and importance of prenatal and perinatal consciousness perspectives, this speaks so loudly to the need to impress upon our children—our soon-to-be parents—that conceived children deserve and need regard unconditioned by, or measured by whether or not we are prepared for them. We need not only to recognize them as conscious, but to recognize nature’s true inalienable humanity dictates bonds of love for the unborn regardless of how challenged the details of our lives may become because they are loved. How would abortion and abortion ideation rates be affected if it was instilled in people that conception equals a call to conscious connection and loving regard, with facing decisions that have to be made not excluding that.