My parents never owned their own video camera—in the 1990s, it was the sort of luxury item (like a snow blower) that could be borrowed from a relative or neighbor when needed. With my Uncle Joe’s bulky camcorder hoisted on his shoulder, my dad would record birthdays, vacations, and Christmases. The camera was a heavy machine, much too big for John and me to ever play with; it was obsolete even by 1990, when handheld camcorders became the tool of choice for doting parents. Nevertheless, my dad ignored his bad back on those special occasions and accumulated hours of footage of us running through the sprinklers in our backyard and ripping wrapping paper off presents. The impulse to document stopped around 1997—by that time, I was 8 years old and John was 11. Maybe we weren’t cute enough to immortalize on moving film anymore. More likely, life just got too busy—who could remember to borrow a camera in the endless cycle of dance recitals, baseball games, First Holy Communions, and trips to the beach?
About the time that my dad stopped recording our major life events, I started watching our home videos. Back then, when I was eight or nine, the videos showed me what my life had been like in the time before my first memories. I would sit pretzel-style on our crimson carpet, gaze up at the wood-paneled television, and realize that my cousin Kim used to try to open all my birthday presents when I was a toddler. Mostly, I thought the videos were funny: the short-shorts Uncle Tom wore in 1990 were funny; the way Uncle David always said, “The Jets are Number 1!” to the camera was funny. John would watch the videos with me and point out what a weird little sister I used to be. His favorite example: on Christmas morning, 1992, when I am three, Dad tries to wake me up to get me to open presents. I refuse and hide my face in my Beauty and the Beast pillow, crying: “Stop, stop, stop, stop! Let me get some rest, you!”
When I think of my childhood now, I can recall that Christmas in detail because I have relived it again and again. I know I got a Playskool dollhouse that year—it was pink and white, and it came with a mommy, a daddy, a brother and a baby girl, just like in our real house. But, I can’t really remember for certain what life had been like for me when I was three years old. Did I nap everyday? What did Mom and I do together when we had the house to ourselves every afternoon? Dad never videotaped the regular days—the Sunday morning French toast breakfasts (no crusts for me), the nightly father-son pitching practice in the backyard. I know these things happened, but I can’t see them clearly.
A few Christmases ago, I transferred some of our home videos to DVD., I transferred some of our home videos to DVD. No one has a working VCR these days, and I hadn’t been able to watch the old tapes for at least five years. Now, at 23, when I watch the tapes on my laptop, I notice more. I hear my mom’s strong New York accent—something that never hit my ear as out-of-the-ordinary as a child; something I don’t hear when I think of her voice now. I catch the softness, sweetness of her tone when she talks to John or me or our cousins. I see the quick glances between my mom and dad—they didn’t need to talk to each other to communicate a message. I see my nanny’s curved spine, my dad’s walk. And I notice just how much I used to cling to my mom. Even I got older—4, 5, 6—I didn’t stop sitting in her lap or reaching up my arms at her, asking to be picked up.
I notice these things because I had forgotten about them. Or, maybe not forgotten—maybe the memories were all there, buried underneath; maybe I just needed to hear the voices again to recalibrate my inner movie—the one that plays when I’m alone or when I can’t sleep.
strong>My favorite home video is the one of my first birthday. August 4, 1990: a bright, hot day. Mom dressed me in a frilly white jumper with neon pink trim. My cousins are all wearing bathing suits, battling with Super Soakers on our back lawn. My Uncle Joe videotaped that day, so my dad makes some rare appearances at the edges of the frame. He gets ready to cut the Carvel ice cream cake, saying, “Watch your fingers!” to my cousins, whose hands are all in the icing. He grills the burgers and hot dogs; he talks to his brothers-in-law about the Yankees. Dad has on a short-sleeved button-down shirt, khaki shorts, and striped tube socks—the sort of thing he always wore at home in the summer. He’s wearing something on a black cord around his neck—maybe it’s his NYPD badge in a leather case, maybe he was on call for work that day. Was he stressed out about the office on my first birthday—about the reports he hadn’t tapped out on his automatic typewriter? Maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe it’s just the cord for his clunky Nikon film camera.
My mom gives her baby girl the most attention. She carries me around the backyard on her hip, showing me off to my aunts and uncles. At 12 months, I couldn’t walk by myself yet, but I could toddle around if mom held my hands. When it’s time for presents, my mom reads each card out loud and carefully tears the wrapping paper from each present, making sure everyone knows who gave what gift. She holds up each set of Osh Kosh overalls, each stuffed animal, each picture book, while I balance on my Great Aunt Lena’s thighs and play with a Mylar balloon. Mom had permed hair that year, and she’s wearing what looks like denim culottes.
My parents barely interact at all on film. There were easily three dozen people at that party; I hardly recognize most of them because I haven’t seen them in over a decade. My mom’s cousins came with their kids; neighbors and friends brought me gifts. Dad tries to talk to each of his in-laws; Mom is busy filling water balloons and making sure there’s enough iced tea. I can’t hear them talking to each other at all over the din of screaming kids and adults making endless small talk. I could watch this video and decide that my parents had a distanced relationship in 1990—that they were cool and pragmatic in their conversations.
But videotape, like still-film, lies by omission. I may perceive more when I watch this video now, but I can’t see what’s not there—like the whispers my mom and dad might have shared in the kitchen, away from the camera. All my memories of my parents tell me that they were never affectionate in public. That was private. They were very composed.
My videos are immutable. I can change the tape, but I can’t create new frames—I can’t see what might have happened, what could have been. Where the tapes stop, the fuzzy memories flood. They are imperfect: snippets of conversations, the glance of my dad’s smile, my mom’s soft hair. I can’t fast forward, but when I close my eyes, I can pause.
Kristen Martin is currently living in Italy, where she is a Fulbright Research Fellow studying food culture and the Italian discourse surrounding gastronomy. In the fall of 2013, she will begin an MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and is originally from Long Island. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in VICE magazine, Philadelphia magazine, Obit-mag.com, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and Filament.