Buried Treasure – Part 1

The original orange room – 1981

Way back in the fall of 1978, Michael and I moved into the first, and what turned out to be the only, house we ever owned. We had no idea we were going to stay parked in what was then a three unit apartment building, converted from a single family dwelling to a multiple one during the Depression. With ten rooms and two bathrooms, the expense of maintaining it was probably too much for any single family during those economically lean days. When we made our purchase, the same financial constraints were true for us. We moved into the first floor which had five rooms and one bathroom. Upstairs there was both a two room and a three room unit with a shared bath. The rents from those apartments helped us with our mortgage payments which back then, carried a 15 and 1/4 % interest rate. A daunting number. The three units were relatively primitive. The wood floors downstairs had linoleum with gaudy roses glued to them. Electrical lines ran up and down the outsides of the walls in alarming patterns. We had pull chains instead of light-switches. We painted, scraped off layers of wallpaper, sanded and stained. A 1986 movie called The Money Pit was apt for what was going on in this place. We figured we’d stay a couple of years before moving on to a house with fewer refurbishing demands. But the housing market got pretty crazy and we realized that we could never replace the space or the double lot we had, so we stayed.

In the orange room with our daughter – 1981

We worked so hard in those beginning years. After coming home from our day jobs, we attacked both the interior and exterior of the house. The process of repairing, replacing and remodeling was endless. I can’t remember why we decided to refer to two of our downstairs rooms by color, but I’m relatively certain that happened when our first kid was a toddler. When she wanted to know where we were, we’d say, “the orange room,” or “the blue room.” Initially the orange room (actually a salmon color) was also the record room and then the library. The blue room was our first bedroom, and then the music room and the study. Over the course of about six years, we took over the entire house as our family expanded. Lots of the many rooms in the sprawling space went through different use iterations as we shifted how we lived in our home. Such memories. Our daughter was conceived in the blue room where over forty years later, Michael drew his last breath. But I digress. The buried treasure emerged from the orange room which, except for a sliver of color near the side of the door header, is now painted white.

The orange room became my mom’s room when living on her own became unsafe. She wasn’t there until her death, as I’d hoped. I was already caring for my baby grandson daily when she moved in, and shortly thereafter, Michael was diagnosed with cancer. Unable to manage all three who needed care, I moved mom into an assisted living facility. When you open the door though, the scent of her still wafts out. One of life’s mysteries. Having heard from a visitor to our garage sale one Saturday morning, that the orange room was once a parlor where he’d attended a wedding, we turned the room into that, as well as a play room for my toddling grandson.

Grandson hiding in the parlor.

After my grandson started day care in 2013, the parlor was just that. A room for reading, for enjoying sunset as a picture window faced west, and for enjoying the prisms that were tossed around the ceiling and walls by the twinkling crystals hanging in the bay window.

When my son was home during the pandemic, he used the parlor as his study. When he and his partner moved in over a year ago, they both worked in that room. When they got married this past March, their ceremony took place in the parlor. With only a week’s notice, I shoved furniture around to make room for our small crowd of officiant, family and guests.

By the time of the wedding, those newlyweds were living in their own place. After that special event, I left the room as it was for a few months, uncertain as to what I wanted to do with the space. Finally, I decided to rearrange things. While moving the furniture again, I noticed that one smallish cabinet was remarkably heavy. I’m not sure why I hadn’t noticed that before but I suspect I was in such a rush that I didn’t have time to pay attention. But this time I did.

The new room design
The unexpectedly heavy cabinet

After I set the cabinet in its new place, I pulled open the front door to see what large item was so heavy. Rather than one item, I discovered thirty old VHS tapes.

They ranged in age from 1981 to 2005. Michael’s parents had a super 8 recorder back in the ‘80’s, as did my brother. After a time, they transferred their films to VHS. Michael managed to transfer a few of his videos to DVD’s at some point. I remember that at one point, we had a VHS/DVD player which we purchased, with every intention of capturing everything on a more permanent platform than tapes. But we were busy and never got around to doing it. Among these discovered tapes were movies from my daughter’s first months of life, family movies with all of our family members for almost all of the ‘80’s, and the videos of my son’s participation in the 2001 National Spelling Bee when amazingly, he took third place. Michael and I, plus our children, were central in most of these taped experiences. As such, we weren’t looking at ourselves. Maybe we looked at a few of these films at some point, but technology wasn’t as great as it is today, nor did we spend much time during that period in our life, parked in front of what we called “the idiot box.” Years slip away. That little cabinet used to be near the television. At some point, we likely forgot the tapes inside and moved it as it was into the parlor.

The first of the treasures

As my kids grew up they were increasingly busy in their lives, but every now and then they’d talk about their pasts and were interested in looking at old photos and the like. My son in particular, really wanted to see himself as a participant in the Spelling Bee. He qualified for it in 2000 and 2001. Years later, as a college student, he was employed by the Bee’s sponsor, Scripps, to work at the event. He was flown to Washington, got free room and board and was paid a nice chunk of money for shepherding kids through the competition week. I contacted Scripps, ESPN and ABC. All of those entities had copyrights to the videos, which after a time, receded further and further into the past. Eventually I just gave up. When I started going through these tapes, I knew that there were technology experts who could work even with the oldest and most fragile ones, to transfer images to a digitized version of themselves. I explored what services were available locally and found a person who said that unless the VHS tape was damaged in some way, he might be able to get even the oldest data off these finds. I selected one labeled “Family Videos – 1980’” and two from the Spelling Bee, which were recorded by one of my dearest friends while we were in Washington. I dropped them off with friendly Mark, who works out of a tiny office, jammed from floor to ceiling with equipment and dozens of tubs filled with videos. He said he might be able to get back to me in a few months. I left the tapes and moved on to other parts of life. Last week he contacted me and said he’d loaded the tapes’ contents onto a flash drive which I could plug into a device for viewing and/or downloading. I told him my kid had been in the National Spelling Bee and would be very excited to see these treasures. He replied, “I know. I watched it.”

I was beyond thrilled that I was finally going to be able to give these memories to my son who’d coveted them for so long. But there was also those ‘80’s family videos. Starting in 1987, when my son was an infant, my daughter six years old, along with Michael and me, respectively 38 and 36 years old, I couldn’t wait to see what had been hidden away in my own house for 35 years. I’ve written before about how much I’ve yearned for a new photo of Michael. Death freezes that kind of thing. No more new anything. I went home, eagerly looking forward to whatever treasures had been unearthed. I got so much more than I’d hoped for. I watched the Spelling Bee videos first. When your kid gets into the final 10 contestants, there’s a break in the action as parents are invited to sit on the stage for the final rounds of competition. A long time ago, someone sent us a still photo of Michael comforting our kid after he misspelled the word that knocked him into third place. I’d never seen anything else from that time. Until now. I went through the film, frame by frame, taking still photos that I could look at more carefully, photos that were broadcast long ago on that day by ESPN. Their quality is grainy. But the feelings they evoke are crystal clear and so wonderful. The camera cut from our kid to Michael and me, while commentators talked about our family, mentioning that our son called us his heroes, something I’d never heard, along with other emotional string-pulling verbal backdrops. Here’s how the still photos which I took off the video appear, in order of the last three words our kid spelled in the Bee.

Third to the last word
My kid on the right at age 14, on stage at the Bee on June 1st, 2001, two words from third place.
Here we are, watching the kid who went out before our kid’s second to the last word.
The word was “louche”
Nervous us, holding hands
More waiting
Last word
Disappointment for your kid
Very proud
Watching the remaining spellers
Love and comfort

The experience of being hurled back in time is a mixture of delight and poignancy. I remember lots of other moments my family shared during that event in 2001. Our daughter flew in from college to join us in what would be the last time our son was eligible for the Bee. Our local newspaper picked up the tab for our hotel and meals. We were taken on outings which included visits to historic sites in Virginia and Maryland, and barbecues and sporting opportunities with other participants and their families. One of the best parts about being in our own little family were shared adventures like this one. I have other photos from those few days. Discovering the unseen moments as they spooled out in movie form were magical. But the Spelling Bee was a unique incident. The reels of memories elicited by the family videos I had transferred are a whole other matter. In addition to watching the growth of our kids, seeing our pets, and remembering Michael and me in our roles as partners and parents, is only part of the magic. Seeing the results of our efforts in turning our house and yard into the space it became is quite stunning. The power of my relationship with Michael, and us with the kids, moved me more than I could have imagined. Stay tuned for part 2.

The only photo we had before unearthing this buried treasure.

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