I truly thought I knew my parents. This past summer I realized I didn’t.
All it took was opening a box that had been sitting on my closet shelf for four years.
When my father passed away in 2008, I quickly yet sadly dealt with the arrangements and paperwork, sweeping up the details of his life. A box of family slides was not high priority, and over time it had moved from place to place in my office.
I finally grew tired of this migratory box of memories sneering at me and my procrastination, so I bought a slide scanner on Amazon in order to do something about it. In June, I promised my inner task-master that I’d scan, save, organize, and make a movie of the slides to give to my brother for Christmas, and then gleefully throw the box away.
With a goal and deadline in mind, I was off to the races…like the tortoise, it turns out. It was tedious work. The 1,500 slides dated from 1960 through 1976, part of the Great Family Slide Show Years in America. Fortunately, my mother had painstakingly labeled each box and slide with event and year.
But tedium had its advantages. Hour by hour, slide by slide, I saw my parents as happy single people, wearing iconic clothes from the ‘60s, and smoking with friends, many of whom would become family. There was my mother the adventurer, caravanning with friends Peggy and Shirley from Michigan to California, as a young teacher in search of love and warmer weather; my father, who couldn’t hammer a nail straight, cheerfully helping his best chum Harry build his first home.
Younger versions of my aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents came to life before my eyes. Milestones were carefully captured…marriages of friends, their own wedding, their first house. Sprinkled throughout were objects familiar: an elephant cookie jar, books I still have today in my classroom, and a vintage radio that sat atop our fridge for decades.
My mother actually looked happy. I hadn’t remembered her ever truly being content, but there she was gazing lovingly at my father. In 1962 they had been newlyweds in love.
I witnessed joy on my parents’ faces after they adopted my older brother Jeff. What an ADORABLE baby he was! So perfect he almost glowed. They had waited a long time to adopt a little girl, but there I was, completing their family. Photos of my first day home, first bath, Jeff kissing my head, moved me deeply. I could actually feel their love for me in their postures and expressions.
I knew the facts, but until that moment, had no emotions to attach to them. Little nuggets of memories fell loose and gathered round me, creating a past that I didn’t know I had. I felt grounded, perhaps, for the first time.
Events later happened that eroded the love that brought them together. My father became disabled, my mother ill and depressed, living with significant physical discomfort for years before she passed away in 1990. By opening the box and sifting through the early slides, I gained precious perspective. Our family’s later unhappy years were smoothed, molded into something easier for me to hold on to.
Piecing the trajectory of my parents’ lives together this summer put me on a journey of discovery and helped me see my parents with newer, clearer eyes. I hope my brother enjoys the movie. I doubt it will change him the way it changed me, but maybe he’ll get a kick out of seeing our father one long-ago Christmas morning, smoking a cigarette while wearing a red satin robe!
Susan Lavelle, a veteran elementary school teacher, is also passionate about animals finding their forever homes through organizations such as the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, www.hssv.org.