Eight millimeter ghosts

I saw my mother for the first time in 42 years, not in a dream but in short, silent flickers across the TV screen. It is the only time I recall seeing her move, and the experience hit me harder than I was expecting.

My husband and I recently took 520 slides and 7 reels of 8mm film to a photo shop to have them converted digitally. Some of the slides had been sitting in various garages for almost 65 years. Doing something – anything – with these family artifacts felt only slightly less overwhelming after researching all the options and prices. The best advice I got was from a friend who said to just take charge and do it because no one else will as time goes by.

The slides deserve their own post and I’ll write about them later. I was most excited about getting the home movies back. While we could hold the slides up to light for a preview, the film reels were a mystery.  I remember my dad showing old home movies in our basement a few times in the mid 80s but knew there were reels I had never seen before.

The film service we used stitched all seven reels into one movie. It starts when my older brother was a baby and ends when my much younger sister was a kindergartner. It spans 17 years and clocks in at just under an hour of footage, showing restraint by the filmmaker, my dad. (There is still a disproportionate amount of crawling baby footage and kids crashing sleds into trees.) If I could get a stranger to sit and watch shaky, soundless footage of other strangers, well, first I would need a tranquilizer dart and restraints. But once they came to and watched, they would notice a chunk of time missing and a mid-season replacement. Where did the first mom go, they might wonder.

My mother is in the first half of our home movie, young and beautiful, the picture of health for most of it. She died when I was a just over a year old from Hodgkin’s Disease. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of her over the years, but getting to see her move and smile and twirl babies in her arms hit me like a sweet sucker punch. Within hours, I experienced all the emotions, from gratitude and love to sadness and even pained regret that I don’t hold a candle to her. The footage only shows her looking a little pale and puffy in what would have been her last winter. Then, of course, she’s gone.

I realized two big mistakes once we got the home movie back. The first was not asking the film service if perchance they planned to tack on a terrible public-domain soundtrack to cover all that pesky 8mm silence. I am not sure how to remove it, but my older daughter likes it and it’s growing on me.  The second big mistake was not considering that my current mom and dad might not want painful, uncomfortable reminders of the 70s alongside our reconstructed 80s family. Fortunately I was able to extract and save smaller files to break out time over more congruous periods. No one has to relive the 70s unless they want to.

Even though it was painful to watch the first time, I wanted and even needed to relive it. I have absolutely no memory of my mother and felt like I was meeting her for the first time. I felt proud to introduce her to my daughters and husband. I don’t openly talk about her with my youngest daughter because she’s still pretty little and knows my stepmother as her grandmother. I don’t want to confuse her or hurt anyone’s feelings. But kids are smart and, anyway, she did just leave stones on her grave last month. While we were watching the home movie, she asked how old I was when my mom died. I was able to point out little me in an Easter dress and too-short bangs that looked like they’d been cut by an older brother because they had been and say “that’s about when”. We were all smiles in the movie despite what had just happened off-scene.

If this seems depressing or matter-of-fact, I don’t mean either. I guess I have the weird detachment that comes from losing a parent at such a young age you don’t remember them. The found footage of her shook up and dislodged grief I didn’t know was there. Even though it hurt, it hurt in a good way.

I’m going to leave you with a short clip and my favorite part of the nearly hour-long movie of our disjointed, somewhat tragic but mostly happy lives. The opening scene is my mom holding my brother (this was before I was born), and then my great-grandmother steals the scene. She is the mother of the grandmother I always write about, by the way. My great-grandmother’s name was Magdalena and she stood maybe 4 feet 6 inches tall, even in that hat. I miss her very much (my daughters would have loved her) though she still makes me smile every time I watch this. p.s. I recommend watching it muted, though the music is oddly fitting.

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38 thoughts on “Eight millimeter ghosts

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  1. I love this! My siblings took on this monumental task themselves. (They’re much tech-ier than I am.) When I first watched them, my eye was continual drawn, not to us as kids, but to the people who were gone. I’m so glad you have these images of your mom.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this. A few weeks ago, we did the same thing with the videos we took of our own kids. I’m still waiting for the results to be delivered to us. When I was dropping off the videotapes, I thought about my parents’ home movies and slides and wondered about doing the same thing with some of their stuff. We don’t have the same family history as you do, but still there would be people in those home movies (from the 60’s!) that are no longer here. Memories…

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    1. The slides belonged to my grandparents and were inherited by my parents. If you like the place transferring your videotapes, ask about any slide specials. Have fun watching your old videos again.

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      1. My mom reminded me this morning that my father put together a video of family pictures a few years ago and gave us each a copy on a DVD. I found it and watched it this morning. Besides endless pictures of us kids, a few other relatives sneak in now and then. Nostalgia can be a good thing some time.

        In other news, my mom thinks they destroyed their slides. 😦

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      2. Nice! And my dads parents thought the same about their slides. If it is the case, I know my dad said he’d seen a lot of the slides before as prints. Maybe you already have them in another form.

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  3. Hi Kristen!
    You describe your feelings of grief being tapped through the images on the reel.
    Sadness and delight share the stage as they must.
    Thanks for writing this post. There can sometimes be the most un-intentional results from some of the small things we do. You have triggered in me, much of the same delight and sadness and I thank you for that.B

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  4. Fantastic! (What a card Magdalena seems.) A great gift you gave yourself. My late husband was an extra in many films and I’ve bought them all for my daughter so she can see him in a glimpse in Batman (with Jack Nicholson) or A Fish Called Wanda (a slab was dropped on him) and others. She never does -but maybe one day. And she was almost 9 so has many of her own complicated memories. That strange loss though – of having no memory – but now, the gift of these images. Just beautiful.

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    1. Those are such cool movies, of their time and instant classics too. I’m glad you have them and are there to show your daughter strength and love. You sound like a wonderful mom.

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  5. Fantastic post.

    A few years ago I went to my sisters for a regular drop in and catch up. She said – Oh I’ve something to show you. I settled in front of the tv with a mug of tea and she popped in a DVD. I was wondering what on earth it was. It was 8mm film taken of her wedding in 1980 by one of my brother-in-law’s uncles. I’d never seen it.

    There was Dad getting out of the car with my sister. Dad who died in 1984 and so this wasn’t that much before then. I was stunned. I sat watching the few minutes then turned to her in floods of tears. It was so lovely to see Dad happy smiling in that suit he nearly always wore when he stepped out of the house.

    My wife subsequently watched it and was able to confirm via the pause button something she always claimed. There she was on the other side of the street from the church with her Mum. We started going out in the Feb the year after and it was soon after that she saw a wedding pic of my sister at my parents and said “I remember that wedding I watched her arriving”.

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  6. This is a great treasure. I know from my own experience with something similar that it can bring up old emotions and cause some pain, but it is such a gift to see our loved ones again, alive, happy, playing in the water. So sweet.

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  7. Such a powerful post.
    Your mom was so pretty!
    And your great-grandma so funny!
    I can see how hard this was for you and your family.
    xo
    Wendy
    PS – I wish we had saved the old movies of my mother-in-law, showing her trying to water ski.

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  8. When my sister came a month or so ago we got out our old slides. There were many of my dad who has been passed almost 20 years ago. I got a bit teary seeing him. It’s amazing that the technology today can transfer slides and films into something so special. Thanks for sharing this lovely story. Your mom is beautiful and your great grandmother, well, she was quite a ham. πŸ™‚

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    1. I was surprised how well my grandparents’ slides from the 50s and 60s held up in less than optimal storing conditions. Slides last. It is such a gift to see our loved ones happy and healthy in their prime.

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  9. WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO WRITE THAT BOOK?

    This is just wonderful, and I love the video. I am curious why you say you don’t hold a candle to her (no need to explain here – but that really caught me). I am sure she is more than proud of what you’ve accomplished. Your posts always feel like a well-worn and comfortable sweater, but at the same time, always something more happening. I love reading your stuff. Thank you for this.

    Paul

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  10. This article makes me want to see footage of my mother from home movies. My uncle took lots of them in the 60s and 70s but I am not even sure if his family kept them. I’m the family historian and I think I need to find out. It has been 39 years since she passed and I really don’t remember her mannerisms anymore. I was 14 when she died. This makes me yearn to see them again.

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  11. I love your writings, this post struck me. My mom is still around, and I don’t even make time to spend this time with her. Your post suddenly had me feeling guilty about me and mom. I also imagine myself as her if my children can’t see me anymore. This is just emotional! Wow. I will cherish the moment right here right now. Thank you for the great post.

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  12. I love this post. I just found you! My mom was sick and it and out of nursing homes when I was growing up. I have a few vague memories of her well but not many. What a treat you had to see your mom in those movies. Can’t wait to explore more of your blog!

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