In The Light Of Home Movies

There was a feeling of pure joy whenever Dad announced he’d be showing our home movies. While waiting for the first huge silver reel, my brothers and I began the ritual of creating shadow bunnies—our fingers diving, colliding and bending against the stark white wall. 

Vintage cartoons preceded the films: they were black and white, starring an anorexic Mickey Mouse. Like the films, the cartoons were silent, but the darkened room where we sat shoulder to shoulder roared with our laughter and commentary. No one “shushed” anyone. There wasn’t any dialogue to miss—just the cranking of that old 16mm projector as it echoed through our small split-level home.

For me, an awkward adolescent, the home movies affirmed that I was loved. In the scratchy, faded images I saw my face cupped, and kissed by my grandmother, the family matriarch, and my loyal best friend. At birthdays Mom and I, hands clasped, led “ring around the rosy” with plump little cousins in party hats. The camera nose-dived when Dad, apparently, ran after me as I tried to maneuver a shaky two-wheeler down a narrow driveway. We poked each other, embarrassed by any shot of our parents’ smooching. Dad slim in Navy whites, Mom’s Rita Hayworth hair swept in a snood. Had he deliberately set up the camera to record this for prosperity? Hungrily, we absorbed reel after reel, anticipating the flapping sound, our signal to whine for another. 

There was the face that seemed to freeze-frame the action, halt our laughter—a favorite aunt who had died suddenly. Years later, I learned she had taken her own life. Watching her braid my hair in these films, I relived the sadness of losing her—the hushed voices at the time of her death.

Then, when I was in high school, Dad began traveling. There was less time for family recreation, and fewer home movies taken. It felt as if we were all being catapulted into the future, and I wondered if there’d ever be another chance to look back and reflect on who we really were as a family.

After I married, my parents and brothers moved to Florida. Feeling no close ties, my husband and I, also moved, to Boston, and for the first time the family was really scattered. When I became pregnant, before buying a single book on prenatal care, I raced to a camera store to purchase a super 8 movie camera and projector. I was fanatical about recording the pregnancy on film, as well as friends’ visits, casual dinners and poker games in our crowded walk-up.

With my camera slung at the shoulder, I was dedicated to my new role as family historian, filming my own children’s parties, dance recitals, vacations starring parrots and dolphins. I edited animated stills at each film’s opening, but I was aware of how my movies seemed so staged. They were too modern these “talkies.”

For me, they lacked the richness of pure motion and the magical charm reflected in the smoky silences—which were the films of my childhood.

Then one day my father pulled the old reels from storage. He’d seen an ad transferring them to video, dubbed music included. Not long after, my brothers and I each received a cassette. It was labeled: “ Home Movies…Our Children”. It had been decades since we watched these movies together, and now we each viewed them separately, 1500 miles apart, in our own homes with our own families.

The video opens with Paul Anka singing “The Times Of Our Lives” and I break down before the first frames. I’m startled by a familiar image of me at three trying to blow out the birthday candles on a fluffy pink cake. My lips curl and quiver until some help appears behind my shoulder. To my surprise the candles go out, and I beam a gummy smile towards the camera. I watch these movies alone wrapped in an old crocheted blanket. My heart pounds and I’m afraid to blink—It’s like seeing things for the first time. There’s a strange mix of loss and reacquaintance. My grandmother, her hair in a perfect chignon looks cautious and worried as she walks beside me. The aunt whose death forever haunts me flinches from the camera lens. She is self-conscious and unsure. My parents embrace in a passionate kiss. When did I ever see them kiss like this? I’d forgotten. I find myself talking aloud to the faces, until the video abruptly fades to black, and I sit staring at a blank screen. I call my Dad to thank him. “Yes, the video store did a great job.” He tells me the cartoons were too old to transfer. “Save them Daddy,” I say.

Another decade passes. My oldest daughter is getting married in 48 hours. Although she and her fiancé live together, she announces that following tradition she will spend the night before the wedding in our home, sleeping in her old bed. She warns she wants a quiet evening, no guests or stress. For hours, I rack my brain over how to spend this special night. And then the idea comes to me, like a forgotten lyric. I call my youngest daughter from the car and ask her to gather the shopping bags containing our super 8 films. We rush to a local camera shop. Yes, they do transfers. Of course, I’ll pay double for the overnight service.

After an early dinner, I blindfold the bride-to-be, and her sister guides her to the den, practically pushes her in the rocker. We’re all giggling, and she begins to balk, wedding nerves intruding. I turn on the VCR and Paul Anka starts to croon. Removing the blindfold, she sees a four-day-old version of herself—a baby buddha nuzzled in my arms. I hear her hearty laugh but tears are brimming. Then a small voice says, “thank you, Mommy.”

The gift I give her: these home movies, are the films of her childhood, a catalogue of her young life. If she should ever stray, forget her past, she will have them, as I have mine—some indelible proof of how she is cherished.

Published under the title “Reel Time” in Chocolate For A Woman’s Dreams by Kay Allenbaugh. Fireside Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.