Tuesday, May 17, 2016

At the End of a Stack of Home Movies

I've been leading a double life lately. Most of the time I go about the regular business that makes up my world these days. On Mondays, I watch a friend's baby for a few hours. On Tuesdays, I write. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, you'll find me at the Rec Center, greeting people who come through the doors. On Fridays, I get the house and pantry in order so we can spend the weekend playing. 

But ever since a couple of small brown boxes showed up on my doorstep about two weeks ago, there have been stretches of time that I've been transported back a couple of decades. 

About six months ago I caught a great Groupon offer for transferring old media to DVD. I have moved tubs of Super 8 movie cassettes from house to house through the years and it's been on my perpetual list to get them changed over to a format I could actually look at. Most of the home movies we filmed between 1992 and 2004 have never been looked at. In 2004 we bought our first digital camera and started taking home movies on that. So the Super8 cassettes (and movie camera) just sat in tubs. 

The coupon was just the kick I needed to get that project moving. I separated my 80 movie cassettes into two boxes, so if by chance the company lost or ruined a batch, it would only be half of my collection. A few months later they showed back up at my house, along with 40 DVDs, full of their contents. 

I went through all of the footage for several reasons. One was because I really didn't remember what we had taped as the kids grew up. I didn't know what would be on those tapes, beyond the vague labels like 'Christmas 2000'. 

Another reason - I've thought about my mom a lot lately, as my nest is emptying, and I am nearing the age she was when she died. I wondered how much footage I had, or didn't have, of her. I have pictures I show my children, of a grandma they really missed out on knowing. But having them see her moving around, hearing her voice cooing at my older two when they were babies (the only time she got with my children) would help them know her in a new way. I've walked around all these years hoping, but not really knowing, that I actually had caught some of her on video. 

And of course, there is the nostalgia that comes with having kids who are almost grown. The thinking back to when they were little, and the house was chaotic in a different way. The wondering where the years went. The wanting to see a glimpse into that world, and be reminded that the days indeed were long, even if the years were short.

What I actually found on those 40 DVDs (most of them 30 min long, to put things in perspective) was not what I had imagined. 

The overwhelming feeling I had, as I chipped away at them, an hour here and an hour there, was that I really loved being their mom. I loved being home with them. As much as we scrimped and saved so that I didn't have to go back to work when they were little, it was all worth it. Our world was calm and mostly full of fun.

We spent a lot of time dancing to music, whether it be the Jungle Book soundtrack, or the Elephant Show on television. Barney was a big part of our life, as I'd remembered, but there was so little time spent in front of a television. Computers were new and fairly crude, so having 'kids electronics' meant having a play keyboard or a junior version of a CD player. 

There was a lot of time spent outside, just hanging around the swingset. Chasing bees in the grass. Pouring water through a pool toy that made wheels spin around, over and over and over. Balancing thin sticks between the rings on the swingset so they could karate chop them down. 

As much as Daddy traveled in his job as an archaeologist, he spent a lot of time with them. I have great language samples from them, at several ages, as they shared with him their latest thoughts, connected to him through a land line that connected our phone to another land line in a hotel near his latest dig. There was no face time or texts. It was just a line of little people, waiting for their turn to talk to daddy before it was time for baths and bed. 

The times he was home there was wrestling on the living room floor (three of our four are boys). Pitching baseballs and kickballs toward them as they lined up behind a cardboard home plate with a handful of neighbor kids, using our perfectly spaced trees as bases. There were chores like mowing the grass and shoveling the driveway, made more fun (and less productive) by a few little helpers with plastic replicas of his tools. 

I loved it all. I loved seeing them wearing clothes I sewed for them, my hobby for several years, as they napped and I did something just for me. I loved the simple things we celebrated, like baby brother's six-month birthday, mainly because Daddy had brought home chocolate cupcakes he'd found on sale and it coincided with someone's half birthday. I loved the secrets they thought they were whispering to me 'behind the camera' as I taped their siblings. 

"Mama, when will it be my turn?"

I loved how they loved each other.Sure,  I remember the fights they had, and the times they didn't get along, but what I see a lot in that footage is four kids who genuinely liked being together. A big sister who couldn't walk past her baby brother without touching his head and usually leaning down to kiss it. A big brother who didn't have to be asked, and rushed to a little brother's aid just because he noticed him struggling. They way they danced together, played together, shared plastic tools while Daddy fixed something. I loved every second of it.
And I can't forget the way it made me feel about my spouse, watching those memories from so long ago. To remember how much I loved being home with our kids reminded me how hard he worked to make that happen. Before we even married, we agreed that we'd both be committed to the same life priorities when it came to our kids. Even when it was hard, he never flinched. He worked hard all day, all week, then came home and consciously gave me a break, fully understanding how tiresome the 24/7-ness of being a stay at home mom can be.
Seeing how expertly he did his part in being involved in our kids' lives reminds me how lucky I am, and always have been. It's easy to be annoyed at a spouse who you've been attached to for over a quarter century. Some of the old annoying habits can creep up on you. But after watching this footage, I can't ignore all of his great qualities. It makes me want to call each of my kids and remind them how important picking the right spouse can be. 

I love the variety of houses and experiences we captured on those tapes. They begin in the early 1990s, when our oldest two were babies and we lived in a tiny one bedroom duplex while Daddy was in grad school. There are long stretches of a six-month propped in a walker and his 18-month-old big sister pushing her plastic baby stroller around the cracked driveway. We were just hanging out together, with nothing but time, waiting for Daddy to come home so we could all squeal our welcome. 

Then there were years in several houses in Jefferson City, when Daddy worked for the MO Highway Department. A couple of little houses within walking distance to his work (so we could have our one vehicle during the day to run errands). And a cute barn shaped house that was perfect for that stage of our life, where so many great memories were made. 

I have great footage of my Dad's house, before and after we lost my Mom. Running around his big backyard in the country and watching toddlers dancing to music in his living room, on the shag rug carpeting from my childhood. 

Then come the shots of the move to DC, when Daddy got his job with the Federal Highway Department. We spent a lot of time visiting the City on weekends, but all of our home movies in that year are of the time we spent in the little rental house we shouldn't have found, but lucked into. The games in the woods behind the house. The days and days of snow play when the area was hit with a record snowstorm that gave us 10 days in a row of snow days. 

Grandparents and friends who came to visit us show up on those tapes. Dancing around the living room with great friends from New Hampshire, and opening presents at Christmas with Daddy's parents. These are all such solid reminders of how loved we are. So perfectly and completely loved. No matter where we lived. 

I actually have footage of the kids and Daddy unloading one of our two minivans, as we moved into our great big Utah house, finally able to settle down for a few years. My seven year old asking where to put the boxes he's carrying in from the garage, and I say, "Mommy and Daddy's room", and he says, "Where's that?" 

A stark reminder that there was a day that the Utah house was new and the lifetime of experiences we collected there had not happened. 

Then, a few months later, some footage that surprised me. In the weeks after my amputation surgery, I spent a lot of time in bed, healing. Daddy, and grandparents, helped out with kids. Then I was up on crutches, hopping through the day's chores. But while I was spending those long weeks in bed, I had entertainment. 

I remember playing a lot of board games in those weeks. I remember finally putting together their baby books. And I remember reading lots of picture books to them. But what I did not remember were the impromptu shows that were put on at the end of my king sized bed. At one point you can even see the tip of my wrapped stump in the foreground, as I taped my newly 3-year-old dancing and playing his toy guitar. There are almost two DVDS full of the shenanigans that went on in our master bedroom, while I waited for a leg stump to heal. These shots alone made me glad I'd made the time to dive into the footage.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, there was ample footage of my mom. And it didn't make me sob, as I had assumed it would. 

The first clips I found surprised me because as much as I thought I'd never forget her voice, it was different than I remembered. In fact, she sounded exactly like me. My 15-year-old 'baby' walked through the room when her voice was on the audio of the footage I was watching. He didn't believe me, that it was my mom. He agreed I sound exactly like her. Which kind of makes up for the fact her voice was not how I had locked it into my memory. Instead, I carry it around with me. 

I have scenes where she's holding my two oldest, as newborns. She is cooing over them and fussing over them, exactly as I'd remembered. And there is a lot of audio of her voice,of her stories and comments. We didn't have a clue that she'd be gone soon, so no one made the effort to make sure we were taping her. Our goal was to tape the babies. But in the background, you can hear her. The way she talked and the way she thought is as important to me as the visual.

It's burned into my memory that she died at age 50. It seemed so young then, and seems even younger now that I'm almost there myself. I remembered celebrating her 50th birthday, and the way she didnt want that number to make her feel old. But until this week I didn't realize I had actual video footage of that party. 

I have her saying, to her children and grandchildren gathered around the table, that she is thankful to still be country dancing, and thankful to have healthy kids and grandkids. Even when she's handed the traditional black balloons, the smile shows on her face and in her voice. At one point my baby Michael sits on her lap. It's a shot I assumed we'd treasure in years to come because of how quickly Michael had grown. Not because it was one of the last videos taken of her before she was gone.

But instead of being overwhelmed with saddness, as I'd feared for so long, I was once again overcome with thankfulness. 

She was a huge influence in my life. She made her mark on so many lives. There is no doubt I miss her, every day. But life has gone on. And my goal now is that these kids she didnt get to see grow up know her a little bit better. The still pictures were not enough. Now I have video and audio to share with them. They know about this woman who made me who I am, as a mom to them. These home movies help save her memory, as only home movies can. 

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