measuring life in 8 millimeters
it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.
it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.
i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.
but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.
mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.
it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?
it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.
if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.
but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.
as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.
as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.
i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.
not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.
in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.
i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.
it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.
but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.
“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.
in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.
a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.
how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?
wow…straight to the core of the emotions…do not pass “go” and do not “collect $200”. I’m moved beyond words but will do my best to articulate a response. I am so very grateful that my nieces have formed a bond with their great-grandmother Helen…that I (and my sister) will NOT have to describe her voice, her warm arms, her laugh to them. For that I am blessed. Today’s blog also makes me think of the family tree (Helen’s lineage)we have hanging in our kitchen …and all of the names and dates listed…but no solid grasp of the lives lived. Also makes me think of Uncle Hans, (really my father’s uncle) who survived the Holocaust…a mere 90 lbs when he escaped. I met him when I was a toddler and that was it. No recollection whatsoever.How DO we keep these lives alive in ourselves and in the hearts of the next generation? Well for starters, I think powerful reminders such as Barb’s sharing of Grandpa Geno (whom I would have LOVED to know) are a good beginning.
Wow. Great stuff. One of those pieces where the words say exactly what they mean, but flow, and leave you just staring at the screen.I got your name and blog from Carol Z.We lost our mothers within a couple yrs of one another.I’m a writer and artist and she sent me your blog link.Nice to meet you!
What a beautifully written memory. Both my parents (and my husband’s parents) are alive and healthy. But reading this makes me want to cherish them more, see them more, and record them for me and my children. I don’t want to forget my mother’s laugh or my father’s words of advice. I will always remember how much I hated his “lectures” as a teenager, but how much I value his opinions and wisdom now.
Anyone who has experienced the loss of a parent ….or anyone who has children who wishes the kids could spend more time with those grandparents…must be very moved by this narrative. I could not hold back the tears. But sadly, what I realized about my own video collection…is that there are few adults in it! It’s all about the kids. My inlaws live in Maryland–so between grandmom and grandpop visits, we sent a steady stream of videos for them to enjoy. Today, we have very few frames of the parents.Before it’s too late, I think I’ll fire up the video camera and take the flack from the parents…for pointing the camera at them!Sound of voices….remembering the sound is hard, unless we remember “pronunciation”–that is what characterizes my family. How they say their words….the “Chicago sound”, the Eastern Shore sound, and their choice of words and expressions. My dad especially had some very creative cursing phrases ( I thought he invented them, my mom says “oh, their very Irish”.)Thank you for your wonderful blog.
OK, Barb…I was dry-eyed until you slipped your arms into your papa’s robe, and then I was lost…yipes.
I saw Denise crying and thought I’d drop in. Nobody can write that kind of memory like you. Maybe Truman Capote, maybe not, maybe just different. I’m not crying, except a little for you and the boys. Peg makes an excellent point about who we include in our videos. My parents have a few minutes of old home movies with us kids at probably the most awkward, hideous time of our lives, and no footage of them at all. that’s what I want to see! and we have a few flickering seconds of my grandparents, aunts and uncles coming out of my parents’ wedding 50 years ago. I could watch that for hours. We may think we’re being narcissistic photographing ourselves as well as our kids, but we’d be doing them a favor.
Hi Barb,Today’s entry moved me to forward your blog to many of my friends. as I realize a lot of us have shared the deep loss of a parent or grandparent with one another.I am a groupie of the Nobel Prize-winning Chicago poet, Lisel Mueller, who has written several poems on this subject, as she was inspired to start writing poetry in her 20s when her mother died. Here is one of her poems that the folks around the table might like, especially the last stanza. It is called:AFTER YOUR DEATHThe first time we said your nameyou broke through the flat crust of your graveand rose, a movable statue,walking and talking among us.Since then you’ve grown a little.We keep you slightly largerthan life-size, reciting bits of your story,our favorite odds and ends.Of all your faces, we’ve chosen onefor you to wear, a face wiped cleanof sadness. Now you have no other.You’re in our power. Do weterrify you, do you wishfor another face? Perhapsyou want to be left in darkness.But you have no say in the matter.As long as we live, we keep youfrom dying your real death, which is being forgotten. We say,we don’t want to abandon you,when we mean we can’t let you go.
I will always remember me singing Marrrrry had a little lam – your Dad got a chuckle out of that!!!! He would be so very proud of you,your men and all of your accomplishments….Love you.
speechless and breathless, i can only say thank you!! and to all the respondents, thank you too.
Beautiful essay, my friend. Ever since we first knew each other you made me want to know him, too. No real death for Papa Geno; he is remembered. I often feel his DNA mixed in there with yours. What stunning friends and family you have with you at your table. Thank you, Carol, for the poem. I may like poetry more after this because of it.
Oh my … I feel like I’m sitting under the blanket watching those films with you. That plaid robe … Our family has a tradition of meeting on Christmas Eve that was started by my grandparents. They loved to throw a big party and to this day we carry on the ritual. This past year we brought out the home movies, also silent and black & white. Both grandparents died before my daughters had the blessing of knowing them. I wanted them to see the people who helped shape my life. Like you, I ache to hear their voices once again.
Carol, what a wonderful poem. The really amazing thing is how that inability to let go of a loved one, or our failure to abandon them, means that their memory is passed on to–and cherished by!–those who never even met them. How is this? My son can be moved to tears in a matter of seconds if mention is made of his grandmother who died before he was born. “Why did God take her back to heaven too soon, mom?” he used to ask when he was very little, using language we had never used in our home to describe death. And now we all can conjure your father, bam, and miss him too, he is a little larger than life for us, virtually a warm and living thing, albeit black and white and a little scratchy. And I think I can even hear his voice.
BAM,Your essay is beautiful as all previous bloggers have noted. But in response to your query of us…Ever the pragmatist, today’s technology allows us to capture the objective essence of our loved ones. Knowing that their grandparents won’t be around forever, we are currently having our children prepare questions to ask their grandparents about their lives, their hopes and dreams. We are going to set up a video camera, the kids will “interview” and the grandparents will muse, voice, gestures and all. A good friend of mine lost her brother very suddenly. To preserve his memory and as a way to slog through her grief, she produced a book about his life by gathering photos, letters, school essays, and poems he had written during his life. She sent it off to some online publisher of such things and had 4 copies made — one for her mom, one for her, her sister and brother. It was amazing.The sights and sounds can be captured, but the subjective texture is what you provided here, and I’m not sure that technology will ever be able to do that.
Barbie ~ it is in knowing you that your loved ones know your Father. His soul is so beautifully reflected in you, his sweet daughter!
Thank you for sharing this very personal memoir of your dear father. I too constantly try and find ways to honor my father, now passed on for four years. It seems like so long since I’ve seen him and heard is voice, but photos do help and sharing wonderful memories of his strong honorable character and humor with my children helps as well. As I write this I listen to Glen Miller tunes, an era that charms me, most definitly connected to my Dad’s early years and the values that he lived. Aren’t we most blessed when the love we are given resides within us in such a comforting way.Thank you for sharing.MH from Jersey
Barbie,I remember well the passing of your dear dad. I am struck by the 8 mm film. It captures part of the story and the rest remains in our minds and hearts as it should. Do you see your dad in your brothers? In the DNA of men, all that is masculine comes directly unchanged on that y chromosome. I am fascinated by that. I see my father in my brothers and we laugh when he shows up in our conversation or a shared joke. For my children who never knew my parents, I tell stories and show photos. They were quite connected to my father-in-law who died 2 1/2 years ago. We made simple memory books for them. They chose photos they liked of Grandpa Jim and wrote a sentence about him for each picture. They are kept in their rooms so they can remember him any time they wish. Keep the memories alive and we will all be richer as a result.Thanks for sharing so deeply
I did the math in 2011 and calculated the first day I would live beyond Mom’s life span. I went out to dinner with friends that night to mark that milestone. The same folks gathered for dinner a few weeks ago when one of the guys passed the span of his own father’s life.
To your first question: writing, storytelling, marking significant anniversaries, bearing their images. To your second question: ditto, and hope. But I have no sense of how well or poorly I’ve accomplished that.