I have been spending a lot of time over my daughter’s lately, helping put the girls to bed and doing the usual grandmotherly schtick. Sometimes I think I see glimpses of myself in both girls – a fleeting gesture or facial expression. Of course, there’s much of their own mommy and daddy in them, but every once and awhile I see myself as a child. At least I think I do.
I decide to put my memories to the test tonight. I find an old videotape spliced together by a much loved second cousin who seemed like my kid brother. Ray and I grew up together in a large, closely knit Polish-American family. His dad started taking home movies in the late 1940s on those big 16mm reels. I can still remember the rack of bright lights which made it almost painful. My dad, especially, would usually make a fuss about posing for the camera because of the glare. Yet, when I watch this almost forgotten video of christenings, birthdays, first communions, vacations and proms, I am so glad that dad managed to stay in the room when the camera came on and sometimes became the comedian and life of the party that he often was.
Some of the footage is grainy and faded but it holds the key to my past. My family tree is onscreen with all its cast of characters, most deceased (including Ray who would now have been a grandfather himself). I watch, intrigued and hungry for the moments when my immediate family members are shown – my mother with her megawatt smile, my dad, much thinner at that time and still smoking his cigars, my grandmother sitting playfully on my dad’s lap, the trio of bachelor brothers who were part of the family. I smile at Ray’s grandparents who always seemed so welcoming and warm. I remember the smell of shoe leather and the whine of machinery in my uncle’s shoemaker shop at the front of the house. I see the many little cousins (some of whom would grow up into addictive, destructive lifestyles), the cousins who remained close and those who drifted apart. I wonder what happened to a cousin who was once like a sister to me. I look at a young, happy couple who are still alive, the husband now taking care of his wife who is slowly dying of Parkinson’s. Who he was then is who he is now. He is a sweet and good man. It is so hard to realize that the boyish-looking man on the screen is now over 80 years old and has probably been married almost sixty years.
There are scenes of my sixth birthday, hair dark like Sophie’s, quite serious minded (also like Sophie), opening gifts surrounded by this sea of cousins and family friends - filmed in the house where I grew up. I watch great footage of my parents’ surprise silver-wedding anniversary at my uncle’s bungalow in Jersey - my dad spoofing for the camera and later dancing a polka with my mom, my mom swigging a shot of liquor (totally out of character).
I see the faces, the many players and companions of my childhood years. I notice moments of interaction among them that remind me vividly of who they were, how they behaved. There is a timelessness to the experience. I recognize the tablecloth in my aunt’s dining room, laugh at the tiara and prom gown which will make me look like a Barbie Princess to Sophie and Hannah when I share this videotape with them.
There is one other video, misplaced at the moment, which holds early scenes of my daughter and son, spliced together from 1970s’ home movies. I am so hoping it is safely stored in Jenn’s basement. I plan to edit both these videotapes (actually find a professional to do the job for me) and transfer to dvd/cd storage for the kids and the grandkids.
The memories evoked are visceral. The images on the screen trigger feelings of how playful or composed or funny a person was. They are all as I remembered them. The family comedians are there; the quiet ones are there; the main and supportive cast are all there – foreground and background. These are the people who helped to shape me, the folks who held me and teased me and scolded and loved me. If it takes a village, this is my village.
I remember that I have several phonograph records cut in the 1930s and ‘40s of my dad on his banjo, my uncle on his accordion, my entire family at my own christening singing “Let the Rest of the World Go By” as another beloved cousin was about to lose his life on a WWII battlefield. There are also audiotapes of the 1960s with me on organ and accordion, often accompanied by my dad on guitar and my mom and aunt singing. I must find a way to copy this stuff too just like the old family movies.
I see them all tonight and I hear them in my mind. Their laughter, their music, their voices are almost within reach.
I am six-years old again. For just one cold winter’s night, it’s a very warm place to be.