Lights! Camera! Christmas!


I have a videotape, an ancient relic of a thing, that my uncle taped at one of our Christmas Eve parties. My parents held an open house style party on Christmas Eve for several years. One of those parties brought with it the latest technology-a video recorder. My uncle had to balance it on his shoulder it was so bulky, but I am glad he made an effort. It is a beautiful piece of my past. It is filled with laughter and the chatter of a well-attended party. My mother and father knew how to throw a party, supply the wine and good food and let the guests take over. The house would sparkle with twinkling Christmas lights and clinking glasses.

Each one of our Christmases from the time I was probably about three was filmed, almost all by my father so he is absent in many of them or seen only briefly when someone else took over. Each year on Christmas day my dad would pull out the large projector from the storage closet downstairs and haul it to the living room. He would pull down the picture of the sailing vessel on a stormy ocean and my mother, my sister, my aunt, and uncle, and cousins would sit around and watch the previous years Christmases. This was my favorite part. I loved watching myself on the screen, going from wobbly toddler blinking at the bright light of the camera to grade school kid with a grin with a space between the front teeth large enough to pass a truck through. These movies had no sound, so the narration came from my uncle and my dad. Each year the narrative was about the same, but we laughed anyway.

One year, as I sat excitedly on the floor, my sister grumbled about watching these movies again. I couldn't believe she didn't want to see our trip to Disney again, for the fifth time! I wallow in nostalgia. I swim in sentimentality like it is a warm pool. Memories cascade over me and through me, flooding my body with warmth. These movies fill the holes in my memories. They put actions where there are only words from stories told by the adults. My sister, being a teenager at the time, didn't feel the need to see herself go from excited grade-schooler to teenager or watch our aunt ram our mother's shins into the golf cart yet again. The latter being a scene my father loved to play in slow motion and backward and forward as my uncle narrated. To me, it was side-splitting funny. It still is. I could watch that again and again.

I wish I could say I distinctly remember all of our Christmases. I want to tell you I have collected the memories, cataloged them and neatly stored them away in the grey matter of my brain. I want to say to you I can pull out my memories and run them like a movie projected on a wall like we used to do each Christmas day. Some Christmas memories sit neatly at the edge of my consciousness, the rest play out on 8 mm film. No sound, no vibrations, just a pantomime of Christmas past. Movies shrouded in background darkness as my sister and I woke our parents up before the sun to open gifts, films in which my father gets yet another suit and tie, movies where my sister is absent until she appears fully dressed because she was now too old to sit and unwrap presents and be filmed in her nightgown. Movies where my mother consistently waved at the camera for a moment then begged my father to move on.

I don't remember the Christmas Eves at my aunt's house, where a close family friend showed up each year dressed as Santa with a bag of toys. I don't remember hiding behind my cousin's long skirt to avoid the red-cloaked man. I don't remember my sister rocking back and forth on her toes while Santa teased her until she couldn't take it anymore and he pulled out the gift she was waiting for, a typewriter. I don't remember the year my father played with his camera and made my aunt disappear from the screen and then show up again, popping in and out of the frame like Samantha Stevens in "Bewitched." All of this played out on film each Christmas day when the projector was pulled from its resting place.

When I watch these movies now, I see the people who are no longer here. I see the two people who stepped in and became grandparents to my sister and me. I see friends of my parents who were always at our parties and celebrations, who filled our home with laughter and my soul with joy. These movies are now more precious to me because of the people who populate them who are no longer here. These movies remind me that life is short. That one Christmas you are in bell bottoms with sideburns, bouncing a toddler on your knee and the next you are grey-haired and a little paunchy, bouncing your former toddler's toddler on your sore knee. They are also proof that all the days in between are significant. That from one Christmas to another we grow up, we change, but the love and laughter are always there.

Some memories are tucked neatly away, and some only come back when I see them play out on a screen. Each year as we decorate our tree and I pull out my phone to video my own children, I see my own childhood come into focus, and the 8 mm film of my brain starts to hum. No sound, just smiles and actions that speak louder than words.

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