Here’s another departure from my usual non-fiction and occasional fiction on this blog. A very personal true story . . .
I never knew him. He died when I was a year old. But I heard growing up that my father when he was alive, liked to take home movies. I had never seen any of these movies, but I inherited his Kodak movie camera, a 16-millimeter in a thick leather, protective case.
Two days ago, early morning I received an email from my older brother, “You’re not going to believe this. Login to my Walgreens account. Here’s the password. Use my email as the username.” OK, I think. I’ve got a day full of meetings starting at 7:30 AM. My new novel just came out this week and I have a list a mile long of things to do. I’ll check this out later. The day blows by. Another email from my brother, why haven’t I heard from you?
This is unusual. I love my brother, but if we talk once a month, that’s a lot. Why the insistence? Later, I think. I’m making dinner tonight. I cook. My wife and I eat. I zone out in front of Netflix. Time for bed. Check the phone. A voicemail from my brother. Did you get what I sent? I’m dead tired, but I better check this out. And then it happened – I entered a parallel universe.
16 Millimeter Time Machine
Flickering to life in front of me is a little boy, a toddler in blue velour pants and zip jacket. The film frame jumps and jiggles. The color is faded Kodachrome. The toddler is walking towards the camera. Zoom out and an older boy is holding his hand. Cut to summer. There are flowers along a walkway. An older girl, maybe 14. The toddler is blowing on a red harmonica. Cut to fall. The toddler, now in a rust velour jumpsuit is raking leaves. The camera pans the front of the red brick house I was born in. Cut to winter. The frame jumps like there’s no vertical hold. The toddler is now in a dark blue snowsuit, holding his brother’s hand, still walking towards the camera. Snow is on the ground. The film frames sputter and it’s over. The toddler is me, six decades ago. The cameraman with the shaky hands is my father.
I’m stunned. Was that me? Did we dig up a time capsule that I didn’t know was there? And what about what’s not on the film? The subtext, the backstory. The happy family, the cameraman. All that was about to change. The loving father, who doted on his young son, dies suddenly two weeks after that last winter scene he filmed. A heart attack at age 49. The happy family is shattered. My vivacious mother is now sullen, depressed and forced to work. She has three young children and can no longer afford that brick front house, my parent’s dream home.
Of course, I was too young to remember any of this. The details all came to me second hand from my late mother, and that young boy and the young girl, my brother and sister, in the film. I never knew my father, but I knew the lack of a father growing up. No ball games or father-son events for me but look at all that he missed. That generous, sweet man. So, once I recovered from the surreal moment of seeing the two-minute film for the first time, I watched it many more times. I thought how lucky I am to have received this belated gift from my father, the cameraman, 65 years after its making.
And maybe, just maybe I can see back the other way through that movie camera lens, and my father will be on the other side, not so gone.