My mother found some old eight millimeter movie reels in the attic. She took them to a guy who digitized them to DVD and sent me one.
I popped it into my bluray player and hit play. The intro screen said, "Our Meomeries," and then offered the selections "play" and "play".
I chose, "play."
And there on my screen was a sunny June afternoon in Manhattan, 1958, in front of St. Ignatius parish church, my mother in a white gown under a flowered veil, my father in a pressed black tux and tie, ducking to get out of the limo, waving to the small well-dressed crowd, getting married, younger than my own children are today.
On the sofa fifty four years later, the blonde haired girl sat next to me watching. I was sure if I didn't squeeze her hand I would fade into the background, dissolved into dirt and meaningless scenery, carried away in the stream of unstoppable seconds.
There is a past that still touches me, to which I can never introduce anyone. A past full of ghosts. All of my encounters are photographs and intangible digital bits. Unverifiable. A story I invent. I can insist it was real. I can offer all the proof I can muster.
But it's a story, in the end.
I want them to know my children. I want to tell them how it turned out.
On the screen a woman I don't recognize cradles an infant and the story is the infant is me.
My grandfather gives a toddler a first haircut my mother tells me he insisted on giving for fear someone else would be first to clip my locks.
My father watches me open a Christmas toy he wants to play with himself.
I want to introduce him to my wife. I want to tell him about Antarctica and Alaska. To show them crystals of volcanic feldspar I collected from the slopes of Mount Erebus. To show them my daughter's college diploma.
I want my kids to meet him and tell him what it's like to live on the beach in Capitola.
But I may as well be talking about Harry Potter.
My father, and the rest of them, are all ghosts.
"Are you ok?" asks the blonde haired girl.
I manage, "Yeah," even though I'm not. Buried in waves of grief, missing all the dead people I see alive and smiling on the screen.
"What is the use of this?" I ask.
I remember my grandmother taking out photo albums, showing me ancient black and whites of scowling faces - this is my father who was a barber during the war, this is my sister who died of polio, your great aunt, this is my mother who had twelve children, this is my cousin Eleanor who died of cancer.
They're just images. Randomized bits. Dark and light spots on old paper.
"Why are you crying, grandma?"
"It's nothing. Never you mind. Go play."
No I am not all right.
"What use is this?"
"They're memories," says the blonde-haired girl. "It's good to have memories."
"Why?" I say. "I was happy until I started watching this."
"It's good to get it out," she says.
"No," I say. By this time it's too much to keep going. Can't see with these eyes or breathe with this throat. "It's not. It never goes away. It never stops."
All the people in the camera lens are smiling, or waving the filmer away. I remember seeing some of of these movies as a child. We'd sit in the living room and grandpa would get out the projector and the screen and everyone would pile onto the sofa and chairs and fill in the discussion to the silent motion.
Home movie film was slow and consumer-grade cameras came with very tiny lenses. Thus home movies had to be made in broad daylight or under intensely bright lamps. Subjects were blinded by miniature solar flares. Everyone in the camera frame squints or holds a hand up to shield their eyes.
There are no stories captured in the home movies from the 1950's or 60's. Those were meant to be provided by the audience. The showing of the movies was a family event.
"There's your aunt Agnes. Remember when she got her car stuck in the ditch and Johnny had to go and tow her out in the middle of a snow storm?"
"There's Celia - that was before she fell on glass and had to have hip surgery."
"That's Tommy. He's the one who got robbed outside Bloomingdale's and then beat up the crooks."
"And there's Daddy when he was skinny."
But without stories, the films are the lead up to a tremendous sneeze that never comes.
Without the living story tellers, all we have is the teaser. The names of some of the faces we might remember, and the permanent anonymity of those for whom there is no context with an audience one or two generations beyond.
All the stories are gone.
But what I can remember about all the stories, the interesting ones, the ones that made the flickering images real, is that they were inevitably about failure.
I was working on the house this weekend. Installing in a solar tube. A solar tube is a tubular skylight. Installing it involves cutting a hole in the roof with a sawzall.
There are few home improvement projects that invigorate one as substantially as mounting a ladder with a high power electric demolition tool with the aim of cutting a fourteen inch hole.
Nothing can make one feel more vulnerable than a roof failure. What will stop the rain? The snow? What will keep out the falling tree leaves? The squirrels and vermin? We take our roofs for granted, until they fail. And then fixing them becomes priority number two, right behind breathing.
We can hardly bring the image to mind of sawing a hole through one's roof large enough to fall through. I like to think it takes a lot of guts to mount the steep slopes of the sacred roof of one's only dwelling with a live half-horsepower power tool capable of slicing through rebar. A tool that can handily dismember livestock if you're a butcher or a human body if you work for the mob.
To take that tool and place it against the innocent roofing tiles that have protected one against the elements for years. To test one's footing, and squeeze the trigger, and then attempt to follow a line drawn on those tiles without sliding off the roof to either death or an extended vacation at the the emergency room. To keep from sawing through the rafters that hold up the rest of the roof.
I am an adventurer, and adventure is all about danger. And risk.
More than half the time I take a risk, the negative subject of that risk becomes my reality. I like to think this makes my successful adventures all the more flavorful. Savory. Those rare successes are very essence of life itself. But in order for them to be so life-affirming, they have to be rare. And for them to be rare, they have to be surrounded by failure.
If we thought long and hard about all the failure we are capable of perpetrating, we'd fear actions as innocent as a toilet flush, as suicide could become a logical alternative to enduring the cleanup after a major overflow. But we don't think about that. We flush. We take the whirlpool for granted.
I take many things for granted. It is a hallmark of my life. I don't know why I feel compelled to do these things.
I ask myself frequently during one treacherous and expensive act after another - "exactly why did I decide this was a good idea?"
That's how I know life is good. When I'm wondering why I've survived.
Now I have cut many large holes in my roof. Five to be exact. Two for attic ventilation systems. Two for bathroom vent fans. Each of those four caused me no end of difficulty after they were cut. At some point in each one of those projects I thought to myself, "Holy shit, I now have a foot-wide hole in my roof and I can't fix it. Some people have leaks in their roof. I have room for an astronomical observatory."
My fifth hole was not to be any different.
Despite how carefully I planned out the execution of the hole cutting - despite running through the procedure in my mind and walking myself through the steps - despite having done it four times prior and re-making none of those prior mistakes, life decided this was another good time for me to experience failure.
I have a composite roof. That means it's made of layers of asphalt tiles. Under the tiles are layers of tar paper and 1/2" osb board that serves as a sheathing. A hole cut in my roof is about 3/4 an inch thick. A 14" circular chunk of my roof weighs about 12 pounds when you include the nails used to tack down the asphalt shingles.
When my sawzall blade completed its beautiful 14" cut, the circle it liberated from the rest of the roof fell subject to the laws of gravity. It accelerated at a rate of 32 feet per second per second, as all objects do on planet earth. Over the course of its motion from where it sat as part of my roof for some 50 years it careened happily through my attic space in free fall attaining a velocity of nearly 21 miles per hour.
You can work out the physics. You can see where this goes.
The wooden asphalt circle full of nails plummeted through the kitchen ceiling, wrecking a ceiling mounted lighting fixture and embedding itself in the hardwood floor.
I saw this happen from the perspective of a deity. I looked down from the heavens through the hole of my own making to see the trail the circle was making, crashing through the ceiling plasterboard, shattering the glass ceiling light, slamming into the floor, nails down, just as God had planned.
Viewing the destruction from above a familiar sense of power and excitement came over me. "Oh shit," I thought. "I have just cut a 14" hole in my roof and destroyed my kitchen in the process. This is a mess that's going to take some doing to fix. I wonder if I can pull this off."
The blonde haired girl was out in the jeep running errands. I called her on the cell phone from the wreckage of the kitchen. Looking upward through the hole I saw leaves of the oak tree above the house and a clump of twigs that must be a squirrel's nest. It was a nice round hole in the roof, but where the circle came crashing through the ceiling looked like the aftermath of a terrible cannonball misfire.
"Ok, so, I just dropped the roof through the kitchen ceiling."
"Ok, do you know if we have any milk? Should I pick up another gallon?"
I kicked some gypsum board away from the refrigerator and looked. "Yes, get another gallon. And hey, could you go over to Home Depot on your way back? I'm going to need a 14" roof jack, couple square feet of 1/2" OSB, and a half sheet of wallboard. Oh, and a small thing of spackle."
"How much spackle?"
"The more I look at this - I think maybe a medium canister of premix. Or maybe the large. I'm going to have to patch in a four-by-four section after I cut out all this ragged crap and nail the romex back up."
"Ok and do you want salmon for dinner? They have a sale on Alaskan king at Lunardi's."
And so on.
Seeing your parents at an age younger than your own children fundamentally perturbs the wholesomeness of the entire heaven-earth system. The youth of our predecessors is the subject matter of the myth and legend of our lives, not a concrete reality as tangible as the last visit to the mailbox.
"I'm glad you liked 'Our Meomeries,'" said my mom, who had called in the middle of the solar tube debacle.
"I noticed that. I guess they still can't spell in New Jersey."
"The guy who converted the DVDs is Russian. He doesn't speak English so well."
"Who is the one wearing the Groucho mustache and glasses thing?" I asked my mother.
"That's your Nana. It was my bridal shower. She was only about forty, then."
"Bridal shower. You weren't even married. I was nowhere at the time. I was unassembled DNA. And Nana was having a whole life. She was only twenty years older than you?"
"Yeah, but you knew that."
"Forty one years older than me?"
"Yeah, but you knew that, right?"
"Mom, I can't talk long. I just cut a hole in the roof with a sawzall and it broke through and destroyed the kitchen ceiling - I have to fix it before it gets dark and the rats come in."
"I never broke the roof like this before."
"Not since last time you broke the roof. Don't think I don't remember."
"It wasn't as bad as this, but - hey, did Dad ever cut a hole in your roof?"
"Honey, you know how your father was around the house. Your father couldn't even turn a screwdriver."
"He used to warn me about doing things like this. He used to say I shouldn't do jobs I'm not qualified for."
"Listen - he could barely get the lawnmower started. You always terrified him. Remember when you took apart your brand new Audi? He nearly had a heart attack. But it didn't stop you. Did it?"
"No. And that car ran better after I fixed it."
"That car backfired and stalled for a week while you fiddled with it."
"But I fixed it."
"Yes, eventually. But we all had to live with you moaning that you had to make car payments on a broken car until you fixed it. Ok, go fix your roof now before it gets too late. I'm glad you like the video."
"Very strange seeing you so young, and Dad younger than my kids."
"Well, we were young too, you know. And it doesn't stop him from being your father."
"Nope. You know, it makes me - like, I really want to talk to him, you know? Tell him how it all turned out."
"He was very proud of you. We all are."
"Mom, I should..."
"Fix the roof."
Yesterday the blonde haired girl finished sanding the wallboard plaster on the kitchen ceiling. She's better at the wallboard detail than me. I put all my effort into building a structurally sound repair for the hole I'd put in the roof. If an earthquake demolishes my Owl House
, that part of the roof will still be standing. And the kitchen interior looks every bit the architectural fashion statement with our new ceiling.
The sun tube is a beautiful addition to our kitchen. Though, after all that trouble with the installation the blonde haired girl didn't like the look of the original diffuser, so I machined a replacement lens for it out of some frosted plastic I had been using for tesla coil parts. It's now much better than the original, and unique in the world of sun tubes.
Though I think I would enjoy a life without anymore of it, I am a master of failure. Had I not learned how to live with the nearly continuous stream of disappointment of non-success I would have perished long ago.
I wish the same for my children, and my children's children.