My dad bought an 8mm camera sometime within the first year of my arrival. He hauled it out for birthdays, Christmas and Easter for the next five or six years but captured only just a few other sporadic moments of our lives in between the big events. The last time he used it was to record a track meet in 1978 when DNOS and I were in junior high.
We never saw the films growing up because we didn’t own a projector. I think I was in university when Dad stumbled across a projector at a garage sale and we spent one holiday watching those old films – mostly because I was student teaching by then and knew how to thread a projector, a nearly useless skill to have acquired now but at the time was invaluable.
For the most part, those tiny reels sat in a cardboard box in the closet of my parent’s bedroom.
After Dad died in 2008, the films re-emerged during the cleaning and I urged Mom to have them converted to dvd, another dying medium but a step on the road to salvaging them.
Fast forward to our summer visit when I once again prevailed upon Mom to do something with those films.
“I don’t know where they are,” she said.
“They are in the basement,” I told her.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t know where they got to when DNOS and I were cleaning and getting rid of things.”
“They are in the basement, Mom,”
“I think they were in your Dad’s closet, but they aren’t there anymore,” she said.
“Because they are in the basement, Mom,” I said.
“No, I am sure we moved them. Didn’t we, DNOS,” she said.
“I don’t remember, Mom,” DNOS said.
“We did move them, Mom. From the closet to the basement. They are in the back room. Right where we put most of the stuff from Dad’s drawer,” I told her.
“Oh, they weren’t in the drawer,” she said. “They were in the closet and I don’t know where they are now.”
“They haven’t been in the closet for years. They were in Dad’s dresser and all that stuff got moved to the back room. In the basement.”
And so the conversation ended there, and the next day Mom informed me,
“I found that box with the films. It was in the back room of the basement. I don’t know how they got down there.”
Before we left for home, I made Mom promise to call the guy at Family Video about converting the reels. He is the only person in my hometown who does this sort of thing.
A month later, she still hadn’t gotten around to it, but I can be annoying and eventually, she took the box to have the contents evaluated for fitness. They were pronounced “good enough” and she was told it would take a week or so.
Neither Mom nor DNOS were terribly interested in the final product. But I harangued Mom via Facetime to hurry up and report back, so one evening they sat down and assessed it.
“Your dad wasn’t much of a photographer,” I was told. The lighting was uneven and there were places that were hard or impossible to make out.
“Don’t forget to bring it with you when you come to visit,” I said.
Mom had revealed that both my grandmothers, my long dead uncles, Jimmy and Red, and a host of other people who have either died or aged out of my life were characters in these long unseen movies, so I was anxious to see them myself.
Because the flat screen and blue-ray are still in our bedroom and not in the living room, Mom, Dee and I crowded round my Mac to watch the dvd the night she arrived.
“You are in every scene, Mom,” Dee remarked after.
Indeed I was. A side-effect of being the oldest that runs hand in hand with the fact that photo albums are stuffed with photo evidence of my every move and milestone while my younger siblings appear to be extras in the story of my life.
The first thing I saw was my very young mother opening the front door of their first house on Euclid street on the north end of my hometown. That house is still there. I’ve driven by it now and again over the years, but I have never been inside.
In through the door walks my Auntie, Grandma R., Grandma C. and Uncle Jimmy. Three of the four of them are long dead. My grandmothers died when I was in university. Jimmy has been dead forty years. I can barely recall him and when I try, he is just this lanky blur whose voice and laugh are just out of reach. It was odd to see him alive. Still photos do no justice at all to the dead.
The event was my first birthday. I am the lone child in a room of adults clustered around a tiny kitchen table with Dad unseen and filming. There is no sound. I would have loved to hear what my uncle was saying to me.
Then it is Christmas. My cousins are small again. Their father, who died when I was 9, is there. All the men are in dress pants, white shirts and skinny black ties. Even my cousin, who is barely two years older than I am at the time is dressed for the office.
And it goes on. Mostly me in the first 15 minutes or so. Birthdays. First snow. First swimming pool.
“You must have driven your mom nuts,” Rob commented when I watched it again with him. “Every time she introduces you to something new, you hang back with this expression of ‘I don’t know whether I like this or not’. You can’t have been an easy child.”
“Dee was the same,” I told him. “Every time she’d get something new, it took her days or weeks to decide if she liked it or not, It was almost pointless to get her anything she hadn’t expressed interest in first.”
The most disappointing thing is that my dad only appears once and early on. He is playing with me on the floor.
“He was the one always taking the pictures,” Mom explained. “He really wasn’t comfortable having his picture taken.”
There is no footage of him with my siblings or even Mom though he is clearly there because we kids acknowledge him and at one point Uncle Jimmy grins off in his direction, making it clear they were sharing some sort of joke.
I don’t know how I feel about having these moving images back. I don’t like watching myself grow into a fat teen. That I am sure of, and I am reminded at one point that there are people taking up space in these images who I came to dislike intensely – for good reasons – when I was older. Like a neighbor boy who bullied me for years and ended up physically attacking me when I was about 12, and a cousin whose dislike of my existence resulted in verbal abuse until I was a teen and simply began to avoid events where he was likely to be. The latter is my co-star in minutes worth of swing set play and all I could think was, “Why you? Why not Uncle Jimmy, who meant more to me or Dad even?”
Very odd to watch little me and little DNOS, CB and Baby.
“Where is Baby?” Dee complained at one point when my youngest sister had yet to make an appearance.
“Sweets, she is five years younger than I am. Look CB is only a baby here. There is another two years to go before Baby shows up.”
The memories are nice to have again. Things I had forgotten, and that still photos don’t easily bring to mind, came right back to me. Such is the power of motion.
And it reminded me that I should do more filming than photographing myself. Lest now one day is hard to remember as well.