I wish I knew how certain images, whether from a painting, a television show or a film, magically plant themselves in your brain, emerging unexpectedly, often at just the right moment. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful. I’ve been casting about for the perfect one which would help me describe the experience I had when viewing what I’ve titled “Buried Treasure,” a cache of forgotten VHS tapes. Recently I was fortunate to get three of them digitized to a “forever” format from a degrading one. The scene in the photo above is from the 1945 Hitchcock film Spellbound, a thriller/mystery/love story starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. This moment occurs when Peck, suffering from amnesia while falling in love with Bergman, begins to remember his past, their embrace juxtaposed over doors swinging open, to another and another and another. As I watched the digitized family videos, dating back to 1987, I felt quite like Gregory Peck in his moment of remembering. Although I have quite an excellent memory, generating my own visual recollections is quite different from seeing them unspool on a screen. I was taken back not only to memories of my family, but also to the building of the homestead Michael and I landed on in 1978, a place we thought would be a temporary residence, yet one in which I am presently still ensconced. Both of our children were conceived in this house and Michael died here in 2017. All our everythings happened in between. And then there is also the yard, the garden and the pets who joined us on our journey. For more background, see my previous blog post, “Buried Treasure – Part 1.”
Our daughter was born in August, 1981. For the most part, between our full-time jobs and our kid, we were primarily focused on pulling the interior of the house together. On the exterior, we got a fence built for containing our dogs, along with erecting a garage and pouring a gravel driveway. The house foundation needed tuck pointing. The endless lengthy to-do list included insulation, a safer furnace and exterior paint. By 1986, our son was expected in November, necessitating the final takeover of the remaining apartment in the house. Looking back, I feel amazed at how we juggled so many demands. But then again, we were strong, in our 30’s and quite motivated. Somewhere in the midst of it all, we went to movies and concerts, spent time with friends and family and deepened our relationship. I’d only lived a house for my earliest childhood years, spending the rest of my time before college in apartment buildings in Chicago. I never had a green space or a garden. Michael was a suburban guy who viewed our neglected yard as a disaster. Very slowly, in the midst of everything else, we began an effort to reclaim the forlorn space from its weedy, tree-less, flower-less condition.
When I loaded the digital movies onto my computer, I watched them as they unspooled, listening to the dialogue and recalling my feelings as they rolled along. But I quickly realized that despite the hazy quality, I wanted still photos of certain moments. So I went back and started over, pausing at various times, when a specific facial expression, a look at what once was in the garden, or my gorgeous husband, demanded a still picture which I could look at more than once. I went through all the footage and chose to photograph the bits that resonated most with me. The film begins in 1987, when my daughter was six while my son was about six months old. My in-laws were visiting. They shot the footage on their Super 8 movie camera. The first photos were taken in one of my favorite parks, which later became a refuge for me decades later, during my coping with Michael’s cancer.
In the same time frame, daily moments in life were caught on film. I’m doing tricks to get my son, more interested in my keys than food, to eat. The shots of both kids are entertaining to me. My daughter found many ways to eventually insert herself into pictures of her brother who was usually delighted to see her. How could she know that everyone had over 5 previous years’ worth of photos with her as the center of attention, long before he ever existed? Sibling dynamics are always interesting and instructive. Their relationship grew closer over the years and today they are great friends and confidantes, as well as sister and brother.
When my in-laws visited, they stayed in a hotel just 2 blocks from our house. The best amenity at that place was an indoor pool which our kids could enjoy no matter what weather was happening around us. Michael and I both were water people so we encouraged the kids to partake of submerging at every opportunity. We were never thrilled with these family visits as his parents held world views diametrically opposed to ours. Feeling like he had a family of origin played a big role in Michael’s psyche until almost the end of his life. Because I loved him so much, I hung in there with him, trying to keep the peace for the first 20 years of our life together. We had my in-laws only grandchildren. Ultimately I checked out of that relationship precisely because their behavior with the kids was often undermining to us. We let the kids figure out their feelings as they grew up. Seeing these snapshots made me think about both the beauty of our little nuclear family along with the hard parts of the larger one. Along with the hotel swimming, there were our water trips to Florida which was home to my in-laws. I missed going there when I absented myself from them and their scene. But I could no longer abide their behavior. Michael used to tell me that had our situations been reversed, he’d have cut off my parents after six months. Who’d have thought that watching old movies would stir up so many emotions? Maybe everyone would feel like me. Good memories and awful ones.
Getting back to the home front, watching the videos brought back a flood of emotion about our developing relationship with the yard, along with sweet thoughts about the dogs who populated our lives during those times. Michael and I each had a dog when we got together in 1972. Mine was a single person animal who bit the paperboy. I had to let her go to be a responsible citizen, which was so hard. Eventually I got a border collie who became best friends with Michael’s goofy Irish setter. By the time we had the kids, both animals were aging. The setter lived to be 15, dying early in my pregnancy with our son. My border collie lived on for awhile, fading before our son was born. When I was still pregnant, Michael arrived home one day with an adorable springer spaniel he named Manfred, who was diagnosed with a congenital brain disorder that killed him at an early age. After losing three dogs in three years, we decided to wait awhile for another canine, opting instead for a kitten from our local humane society. After selecting one as a family, a bureaucratic error arose – our kitten had already been promised to another family, an event which traumatized our seven year old daughter. When I went back on my own for another try at cat adoption, I stopped in the puppy room and wound up with Sydney, our smart, gentle black collie mix. Our son was just around a year old then. They grew up together.
The dogs of our lives represent one part of how our family evolved, navigating the joy and sadness we all bore together. But looking at the barren yard, with only the infant stage of how it looks now, is really as emotionally stunning for me. I remember planting those little upright evergreen yew shrubs that I bought at K-Mart for almost nothing. K-Mart disappeared from our community a long time ago. They’re still here. The swing set was useful for a few years but ultimately, Michael replaced it with a tall, multi-level climbing structure for the kids. That’s still here, too, over thirty years later. My grandsons have played on it, but long ago, after the kids moved on, I planted climbing vines to attract hummingbirds. I used the other former kid hideouts and meeting places for annuals in pots, hanging baskets and even a recycled sink from our old bathroom.
Meanwhile Michael was clearing grass for an herb and vegetable garden which fed us tomatoes, basil and peppers and more, converting them into pasta sauce, pizza sauce, salsa and pesto. He was an inveterate canner. We ate fabulous caprese salads all summer. When he died I converted that space into a pollinators’ garden. His herbs return annually, a welcome reminder of the hours we spent working out there, side by side, him with his food, me busy planting perennials, shrubs and trees. I still grow tomatoes, peppers and basil on a much smaller scale. I plant them for him as much for me. I think we’re part of this ground. One day down the road, we actually will be, at least in ash form. Here’s how it looks now.
Retrospect is so poignantly comprehensive when enhanced by what you can actually see and measure with documentary evidence. These old videos also took me back to unexpectedly simple moments of daily life back when the days were a blur of activity. I lifted a few more photos as illustrative of the ‘80’s for us.
When I picked up my flash drive from Mark who transferred the VHS files for me, I dropped off six more tapes. One of them is labeled 1981, the year my daughter was born. Another was from 1989 entitled, “Home movies of dad,” taken the year both my parents had cancer, my mom surviving, my dad dying in late September. I’m hoping to find as much treasure in those as I did during this first round of unearthing the past. We’ll see…