Joy and pain of watching home movies

2011-04-28 00:00

I SPENT the weekend saving the chaotic pile of mini digital tapes of our home-movie collection onto my wife's fancy new iMac.

There are about 100 hours of footage there from when the boys were toddlers until just a few years ago.

I was up until late each night in the darkened study, the images of our lives together flickering eerily around the semi-darkened room.

The experience was deeply unsettling, at the same time surprisingly moving and affirming.

There's Jessie, now 14, when he was only five. He is showing me, the cameraman and narrator, around the house we were leaving, the house that had become too small for our family and its ambitions.

Jessie knows exactly where he is, and he knows each detail and provenance of the objects he handles and holds up to the camera.

"Well these," he says in an astonishingly confident, clear and bell-like voice and pointing to a basket of butternut in the kitchen, "are, um, potato-pumpkins. Grampa grew them on his farm. Me and my brother think they are sucky but my mom likes them. No one knows why." And then he is off to talk about the onions.

He is exactly as calm and cynical as he is today. I thought those were affectations of teenagehood. He now has a sign on his door that reads: "I can only please one person a day. Today just isn't your day … and tomorrow is not looking too good either."

I find the fact that at five he was already the person he has become surprising and strangely comforting.

Ignoring the toddler

At some point a two-year-old Tom (now 10) tries to get involved in the action. He wants to show us how the toilet roll in an upstairs bathroom unwinds with a mysterious momentum so that the role piles up on the floor.

But we don't listen. The camera barely turns towards him and it is just his voice and the clackity-clack of the strange old wire toilet-roll holder emptying its contents that gets recorded on the soundtrack.

Jessie is showing me the toothbrush holder and Tom's little hand comes into the picture and tugs at his shirt, trying to draw his brother's and my attention to the magical perpetual- motion toilet-roll holder.

But the camera stays focused on Jessie and the toothbrushes.

There are hours and hours of movies. They are filled with happy and sad moments and much of the mundane business of houses and pets and first days at school and new toys.

There is a bit of drunken debauchery during which I am inevitably allowing the camera to linger caressingly on all the women, and my long-suffering wife just blows cigarette smoke at the camera.

We are all younger and we all smoke and drink too much, and the children are in and out of the conversations and clouds of dinner-table smoke. It's difficult to believe how irresponsible we were.

Late on Sunday morning I downloaded the tape where Jessie does the tour of that long- gone home in which both my children were born.

Near the end there is a scene where Jessie moves out of the boys' bedroom to begin describing the items and delights of the passage. Just before the camera follows Jessie out of the room the two-year-old Tom appears from off screen holding out a huge Bionicle contraption.

"That's lovely darling," my narrating voice says as the camera pans away to follow the older and more confident child on the tour of the house.

It's a difficult and contradictory business

You cannot call back to yourself. You cannot cause the camera to pause and linger. But unlike your long-gone self, you can, here far in the future, pause the film.

That Bionicle, now that I am graced with the opportunity of carefully looking at it again, was a thing of fearsome elegance and complexity.

And Tom's face was luminous with pride and joy. — Parent 24.com

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