My memories of childhood are shadowy, fluid, dreamlike. Like a Super 8 home movie. Scenes blur together, and then separate into clips of lucidity. This kaleidoscope of reminiscence has kept my memoir at an impasse for too long. How can I cut and splice these flashbacks in a coherent and meaningful way? Most of the book is written; much of the editing is already done. What is holding me back from finally finishing it? I want so much to get it right. Deciding what to keep and what to discard has been the most difficult part. I remember so much. The intensest memories are not necessarily the most significant to the story. Sometimes, the quiet moments are the most illustrative. I don’t know how I know this. Except for the required English 101 classes at college, I am completely self-taught. Intuition and observation are my only teachers.
About a year ago, treasure fell into my hands. An uncle had converted all of my maternal grandmother’s Super 8 home movies to DVD. My mother sent me her copies, and I converted them to digital files. Hours and hours of vintage footage unspooled before my eyes. Grandma was a meticulous documentarian of family history and traditions. Birthdays, Christmases, First Communions, football games, hometown parades, slumber party pillow fights, proms, graduations. My mother and her six siblings appeared before my eyes in glorious retro distortion. Light leaks, blurs, discolorations, and double exposures. Eat your heart out, Instagram.
The family road trips mesmerize. Cross country station wagon odysseys. East to West. North to South. And back again. Through forest, wide open plain, mountain, desert. Along the Pacific coast. Niagara Falls. Mount Rushmore. Yellowstone. Grand Canyon. Roadside plaques. Random flora and fauna. Kitschy gunfight reenactments. State lines. Much of the footage was shot from the car window. An infinity of open road. I swoon with nostalgia for this lost Americana. Unfortunately, I can’t watch for more than a couple of minutes at a time without getting nauseous. Carsick by proxy.
My parents appear in a church. Two teenagers barely out of high school. I am there, concealed under my mother’s shapeless white shift dress. Around this time, the buzz cuts, bouffants, horn-rimmed glasses, and full skirts give way to bandannas, sideburns, and bell-bottoms. And then, there I am. I gaze into my innocent face. My future was too vast and fertile to be comprehensible. The past too shallow to be influential. I peer into this crystal ball, trying to decipher the messages that swirl within. Unlock a hidden vault. Trigger a breakthrough. Tell me, little girl, why I am the way I am.
Scenes merge; eras collide. They fade to black with brutal finality. I rewind and play them again and again. I analyze mannerisms, facial expressions. This is what I’ve discovered: away from school, from my peers, I was happy. Confident. Rambunctious. There I am jumping off a deck into deep snowbank. Skidding down icy hills. Plowing through a pool. Running through the forest. Even when I could only crawl, I focused on my target and charged forward until I reached it. My brothers and sisters move in and out of focus. Each personality instantly recognizable and endlessly fascinating.
Grandpa’s gentle, good-natured demeanor makes my heart ache. He’s been gone so long now. Grandma rarely appears, but when she does, she’s an imposing, luminous presence.
My mother was clearly unhappy with my father throughout the years. Her body grew rigid when he was near. Her eyes hardened. She turned away. No one seemed to notice. He knew better than to leave visible marks. Smiles, everyone. Smiles.
Moving pictures are two-dimensional. Recollection is not. I remember the wallpaper texture of my stroller cushion. The tightness of patent leather shoes on my feet. The unripe taste of the green olives I ate just before we drove away from our little yellow house for the last time. I felt sad about abandoning the empty jar on the tree stump next to the driveway. I watched it recede through the back window. I was four years old. It’s funny, the sensations that endure.
Lips move. Does it matter what they say? My father’s voice reverberates through my mind. The dying vibrations of a struck bell. How do I reconstruct the enigma that he has become? He died in 1992, at the age of forty-three. Over the years, he became a caricature, defined by the illness that consumed him: schizophrenia. Crazy Dad. Fear distorted my perception of the person he had been before. Through the lens of time, I see his deep, nervous sigh at his wedding. The awkwardness at social gatherings. His laughter at his children’s antics. The spontaneous kiss on the top of my bald little head.
His instinctive tenderness. I grasp onto these precious seconds with everything I’ve got.
I search for signs of his disintegration, but there are none. Even at my littlest sister’s baptism he jokes around with his best friend, my sister’s godfather. He wears his usual goofy, canine-like expression. He doesn’t deviate from the program. My siblings and I make the sign of the cross on my baby sister’s forehead, light candles, and return to our seats, beaming with joy. I sit in the front pew and take photos. I am twelve. Only my mother looks pale and wary. It was about this time that he began to refer to his five children as his disciples. Sermons replaced conversation. Strange word combinations crept into his speech. His eyes rolled back in his head, as if he had gone into a trance. Within a year, the remnants of his sanity would vanish.
My father disappears. The birthdays of my littlest brother and sister go on, as do the Christmases. That first Christmas without him, we sing the traditional carols with downcast faces. Everything blurs. A slight backward jump in time. Oh, look. There’s the trip through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with my grandparents.* It was the summer of 1982. I would start high school that autumn. This trip was supposed to be an escape from the constant apprehension.
Sometimes images are not what they seem. This is not the face of a kid with PTSD. A kid who slept in her clothes and had nightmares. This scrawny little girl had always been such a crybaby, but the tears were replaced by a low-grade hum, an ominous tremor in the cells. This is not the face of a teenager who, in just a few months, would begin to self-medicate with alcohol and marijuana. The casual observer would not know that I was not holding my littlest sister, but clinging to her. Something I probably did too much. She was one of the few things that made me happy.
Not long after this, VHS appeared on the market. The days of Super 8 came to an abrupt end. No more film to thread into a projector. No more white screens to unfurl. No more flickering images in the dark. The spectral spectacles were banished to the back of the closet. Did my grandmother move on to the new format, or did she give up her hobby? When I try to remember, I hear only the hypnotic click of the reels as they spin into oblivion.
*This trip is in the memoir. I posted the excerpt on this blog as “Across the Bridge”.
**All images in this post are stills from Grandma’s home movies.