Two years after buying a recordable DVD player, one year after the threats from my wife got serious, I begin transferring the home movies of my children from VHS tapes to DVDs. I know I’m still at least one platform behind, but any digital form is better than one that can be destroyed by light, air, and time.
Because they’re analogue, I need to play them in real time to copy them. And as I do, I watch them, and I realize that the last time I watched them was the last time I transferred them, from camcorder cassettes to VHS. Their entire existence rests on converting them from one obsolete medium to the next.
As I watch, I see my young self and young wife, recent parents and, far more seriously, recent homebuyers. I see my oldest son, now a teenager, as a baby, then a toddler, then an older brother to his new baby brother. And I think, Ah, so young, so cute. The kids, too. The tapes from twelve to eight years ago show a new family in a small, snowbound Minnesota house, each of us swaddled and layered in Fleet Farm sweat clothes, the new baby in so many layers that he’s a Midwest Matryoshka. All laughing and smiling, just joy, spinning, dancing. Nine years, four houses, and three states elapse in two hours, and our daughter, now five, is born.
Yet looking at these people on TV, I realize that I don’t remember the times this way. What I remember is the stress and mess, the lack of money, the ever-present question: what’s going to happen? Not unlike now, but then even more so. I never liked recording the movies, never feigned love or expertise manning the camera. I always felt that parents who spent their time with a lens in front of their eyes were blocking their view of their children, already anticipating the minute when that very moment would turn to nostalgia: Ah, look at us. We were so happy fifteen minutes ago.
But it has not been fifteen minutes. It has been fifteen years, and I can see not just how fresh but how fragile the moments were. I’m glad I didn’t film too much, the Warren Report of our lives, the volumes Proust would have filmed if he’d lived in the Midwest and owned a camera. But I’m grateful that I have something, a few compressed flashes beyond the faded reel of my own mottled memory, and that these videos are more luminous and numinous than my mental VHS’s translucent haze. I wish that I could transfer the images in my head to a newer platform as well, and as the last tape cuts to static, I close my eyes and imagine how today will look to the future me of the next transference, how I’ll look at the deteriorating self that I now see entering middle age, and instead I marvel at how young and thin, how thick the hair, how joyous the moments, since I have recorded proof that they will not last.
Time: less than an hour. Lost track.
This was published in the 2013 issue of Maryville University’s literary magazine, Magnolia.
Hourman update: despite two posts this month, still on hiatus. Thanks for hanging in there.