Rewriting the Story of My Parents’ Marriage
How old footage of my family helped me see my mother through a new lens
We’d had the big white box of old 8mm and Super 8mm family movies for 40 years, handing it off from sister to sister after Mom died of breast cancer in 1975, each one of us promising to digitize or otherwise take care of these precious family heirlooms. No one had.
Then one summer in Santa Cruz, at the little beach house Mom had bought with an unexpected windfall the year she died, we set up an old projector my husband had found on eBay, along with a portable screen. My four sisters and I crowded into the tiny living room with sundry offspring, butts on the blue-carpeted floor, or the dark brown fur-covered couch, or the bright orange beanbag chair leaking white styrofoam pebbles.
My brother-in-law, Paul — an honorary sister by now, after practically growing up in our family while married to Jackie for almost 50 years — handed me each film, randomly selected, from The Box, and the fest began.
Some films dated from before I was born, and many were labeled with my mother’s handwriting: “High Sierra Fishing Pack Trip, 1940”; “Robert and Toni’s family, ’46–51”; “Christmas Dinner at Grandma Claire’s, 1946”; “Bonnie’s Reel, 1948.” We oohed and aahed as we recognized our relatives in their handsome youth. Some of us drifted off to play a board game in the dining area as the fest wore on. But not me. I was the projectionist. I was the current possessor of The Box. And I was determined to know everything that was in it so we could decide what to do with it, at long last.
What I’d seen with my child’s eyes was just the surface. What I saw with my adult ones was what lay underneath. And it meant that Mom’s life wasn’t wasted.
Paul handed me “Seabright 1948.” It opened with a shot of my mother, looking like I’d never seen her, with long black hair and a trim figure in a two-piece retro bathing suit, laced up at the sides. It was a rare treat to see her at all, since she was usually holding the camera. She was so young and beautiful! She posed on the parapet of the castle that used to stand on Seabright beach in Santa…