I wanted to get started before the tapes deteriorated, but strangely I found myself procrastinating. Almost a year and a half after buying the unit, I had not yet transferred one family tape to a DVD. Interestingly, I had transferred other recordings of documentaries I wanted to save, but no family memories. What was going on?
I eliminated the usual excuses we give ourselves, such as lack of time, and that left me confronting the real block to action. A good rule of thumb is whenever there is unreasonable procrastination, there is an emotion lurking in the bushes. There were actually two emotions: fear and grief.
What if I discovered mistakes I had made as a father? Our memories clean up the past to make it emotionally acceptable to us, but tapes don’t lie. They record, with accurate detail, what actually happened. I anticipated feeling sad as I saw the images of close family members who have since passed away.
On Christmas night I arbitrarily selected a family tape from 1991, and sat down with my wife and our adult sons, home for the holidays, to watch it while it was being transferred to DVD. I had seldom watched any of the tapes after they were made, so I didn’t know what to expect. Instantly we were transported back in time to the living room of our old house in Sherman Park. The first scene was of our two sons, ages 5 and 3, in their winter pajamas, standing behind their little Fisher-Price table, handling some toys and chatting with one another.
A wave of emotion came over me. It wasn’t fear. It was much more complicated than that: a combination of sadness that those times were over, joy at being able to relive them, and awe at life unfolding. One sequence led to another. Now we were at my cousin’s house on Christmas Day with her husband, my father, mother, uncle and three aunts. Our 5-year-old son was going from relative to relative offering them selections from a box of chocolates. Then my wife was helping our younger son try on a new shirt which he received as a present from a great-aunt.
The scene shifted to a winter mini-family reunion at another cousin’s house on Pewaukee Lake. In the background ice boats sailed across the frozen lake. Inside, my father, two of his brothers, two of his sisters, and a cousin linked arms to sing a rousing drinking song from their youth. They are all gone now. Their song is silent. But not really.
Toward the end of the tape, we were all suddenly mesmerized by an unexpected monologue by my father. He looked directly into the camera. He took time to collect his thoughts. He said that he was blessed “to be 84 years old.” He said he was blessed by and grateful for all of us. His words moved us 18 years later.
What we do lives. Even if we didn’t have technology to remind us, we still remember at a deeper level. When you go out of your way to express interest in children by getting down on the floor to play with them, looking at their pictures, and asking them questions, you leave a positive emotional impact.
After watching the tape, our younger son remarked that he didn’t realize just how much his grandpa and grandma were involved in the early life of our family. Years later he had little cognitive memory of the details of his grandparents’ involvement in his life, but his heart remembered. When a child feels loved, a foundation is set for life. He believes he is lovable. That affects his choice of relationships.
After viewing the tape, I think each of the members of our family made a point to express our gratitude and appreciation for one another. The night before our older son flew out of town, we went out to eat and snapped a family photo using the camera’s self-timer. We created new memories.
Eighteen years from now I may be watching the recording I made this Christmas, as I transfer it to the future state-of-the-art technology. However, no advances in technology will ever equal the advances we make in knowing how to love.
(Pankratz is a marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities Milwaukee Regional Office.)