Both my dad and my mother’s father took lots of pictures over the years. As kids, my siblings and I were always smiling at the camera for my father or grandfather, and often both of them at the same time until my grandfather died.
There were four standard poses for the photos – in front of a Christmas tree, in front of the fireplace, cuddling on the couch, or outside framed by the front porch. In the movies, at commands for action, the kids waved, the women hugged, and the men shook hands.
My dad recently put some of these old family slides and home movies on DVDs and gave me a copy. I watched these DVDs the other night.
Many of the pictures I’d seen before, snapshots and films of me and my siblings from infancy on. These pictures reminded me of stories in my past – some stories remembered, and some tales I’ve only heard repeated through the years. They’re all preserved in the pictures. You’ll probably hear about some of the stories in future blog posts.
For example, in one home movie I (at age 2) pushed my baby brother over – a moment of sibling rivalry captured for all eternity. That’s the moment the family talks about, the time when Theresa eschewed her role as Nice Big Sister. (Actually, many of the pictures reveal I was quite a devil as a kid. I had mastered the Evil Eye about the same time I pushed my brother over. I don’t know how the myth of Nice Big Sister developed.)
I can still date most of the pictures of me by what I was wearing – the grey velvet hat with the mink tails on it, the baby blue coat my grandmother made for me (my daughter wore it, too), the red plaid skirt I wore from when it hung below my knees until Mother had let out every inch of hem she could.
I laughed at the psychedelic prints of my high school years.
I was surprised to see one navy blue outfit I wore in grade school show up a decade later on my sister. She got a lot of hand-me-downs from me, but I’d forgotten she got that outfit, too.
So many of the pictures were familiar and brought back memories. But some of the home movies of my parents were new to me. I had not realized my grandfather had had his movie camera as long as he had. I guess I presumed he’d bought the camera to take pictures of me, his oldest grandchild.
These movies moved me to tears, revealing new perspectives on my parents when they were little more than children. My parents were high school sweethearts and started dating when they were fifteen. They got married after they graduated from college, and have now been married fifty-seven years.
I know their story, but it became real to me as I saw the films for the first time of a young couple having fun and falling in love. I saw them preening before their high school dances, my mother in formal gowns and corsage, my father in white dinner jacket and red boutonniere. I laughed at them decked out in matching rabbit costumes for Halloween.
I watched my mother skiing and ice skating, the camera capturing the moments just before she fell. She’d told me she had skied and skated, but I’d never quite believed my non-athletic mother really knew how to do these things. Now I saw the proof.
I saw my mother graduate from college, her father’s pride showing as he panned the camera to keep it centered on her as she crossed the stage.
They looked so young, my parents-to-be. They were young – the films showed them when they were less than a third of the age I am now.
One of the formals my mother wore in high school ended up in my dress-up pile when I was a little girl. I can remember prancing around in the then-torn lace and some old scuffed heels I could barely keep on my feet.
But in the movie, the gown was brand new, blue satin with a net overskirt. It shimmered, while a gold pendant sparkled on her throat. I’d always thought my mother less glamorous than her friends, but she was lovely in her youth.
It was particularly startling to watch the DVD of my parents in high school after just seeing the slideshow of my childhood. I had just been remembering how I had felt at fifteen and sixteen. To then see my parents at the same age was a jolt – they, too, must have had the same hopes and dreams I had.
Now for over half a century they’ve lived their dreams, or most of them. And now they see the end ahead. As I’ve written before, my mother has Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t remember most of the events I watched on these slides and films.
Some days she is not quite sure who my father is, and is surprised to learn she’s married to him. “My father would never have let me marry you,” she told him recently. “He didn’t think you were good enough for me.”
Yet the movies taken by her father show a happy, youthful couple, with no indication my grandfather had any reservations about this boy as a son-in-law.
“Did I have a brother?” she asked me when I visited recently.
“Yes,” I told her. My uncle also came to life for me in the films; I never knew him well.
“Did he die?”
“Poor Bob.” And she went on at length about how she thought her brother resented her, because her adult life turned out healthier and wealthier than his. How much of what she said is true, and how much a part of her now distorted world? I’ll never know. The home movies didn’t show this, and neither she nor her brother can tell me.
Some stories are lost to time, though the pictures remain.
That’s why we write. To keep the stories along with the pictures.