Plunging Into the Past

My mother, smoking in my grandparents’ house, back when everyone was lighting up like chimneys.

Back in May I finally (finally!) got around to sending a bunch of stuff into Legacybox, which is one of those companies that will scan your photos and transfer VHS tapes into digital files you can actually watch since VCRs are rare commodities these days. I had two boxes, the first of which was purchased in 2013, the year my mom died. It just kind of sad there, unused, because using it would require a level of organization and discipline I often struggle with.

Using my Legacybox was on my 19 in 2019 list, one of several goals I never got around to accomplishing. I kind of hate not being able to check things off my list, so in January I started going through pictures and sorting them into prioritized piles. And then I did exactly nothing with those files.

Fast forward to February, when the BFF and I turned our annual birthday vacation into a Get Shit Done (GSD) staycation. Both of us wanted to go through our photos, purging and organizing, and we spent one super-long night doing just that. I got much, much further than I had in January, but the boxes still didn’t make it out the door.

One of the holdups there was that the second box was purchased to digitize a photo album that belonged to my husband’s grandmother. Grammy’s album was the kind that had sticky pages, and if you’ve ever used one of those you know that after a handful of years, the adhesive turns yellowy brown and the acid in it starts eating away at your pictures.

One of the photos rescued from the evil sticky album of doom.

My goal had been to gently remove the photos, take the best of them, and get them digitized so that I could make her a Shutterfly book. But Grammy also had handwritten a bunch of notes and dates on the sticky pages, and I didn’t want to lose the detail or her writing. This meant that I had to photograph every page of the album so I could later match up the photos with her notes. I also had to save the album pages so I could eventually scan her writing and insert that into the Shutterfly book as well.

Fast forward again to Mother’s Day weekend, when the Legacyboxes began to feel like a couple of albatrosses I’d never shed. I needed to just get it done, damn it, so I rolled up my sleeves. Six hours later, I finally had everything sorted, labeled, packed, and ready to roll.

The first box came back a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t open it right away because I fucking procrastinate over everything, if you hadn’t figured that out yet. The second one showed up a few days ago. And still I didn’t open them up until today (technically yesterday, as it’s well after midnight as I’m writing this).

This weekend took on a decidedly GSD flare, as we had to rearrange a bunch of stuff to get ready for a new AC installation that required duct work on top of everything else. I even knocked out the advanced defensive driver course I purchased in January but never completed (master procrastinator, remember?) because I just got the new policy document and saw that the old discount dropped off and I wanted to squeak it in before the policy renewed.

This is my second time taking the refresher course, so I basically half-listened to the material while I worked on a bunch of other things…including opening my Legacyboxes and loading the DVDs and flash drive onto my storage system.

Here’s where my tale is about to take a sharp left turn, because I just spent all of this time talking about old photos but the real headline here is the videos. The four VHS I’d sent in were recordings of shows my now-defunct theater company put on over the summers between 1993 and 1997. They were original plays written by me and my friends from high school, with a core cast of actors and other people who flitted in and out over the years. I directed all four of them, because that was a think I liked to do.

The first one that loaded was from our second year. The image quality is atrocious, which is to be expected from 25-year-old, low-rent home videos that moved with me to Indiana, back to Delaware, off to Massachusetts, and back to Delaware again. Also, I have no recollection of who our cinematographer was, but the opening credits looked like they belonged in the 1980s and also had typos. Lots and lots of typos. (Ouch.)

After my initial shock of seeing the BFF in the first scene – I’d somehow forgotten that she acted in one of the plays, and when I asked her how I could have possibly forgotten she told me it was because the only thing I remembered about the summer was the much-disputed chair-throwing incident that ended our friendship for a 13-year stretch – something else happened that I wasn’t expecting: I heard my mother’s laugh.

Anyone who knew Nancy for more than a few minutes could tell you all about her laugh. It was unique, loud, and infectious. And even though it’s kind of burned into my memory, hearing it – her actual laugh – made my breath catch for a few beats before I burst into tears.

I hadn’t thought I’d ever hear her laugh again.

These days, I shoot video all of the time. The quality on my iPhone is decent and my kids are stupid cute. But back then, before my mom died? Not so much.

I’ll end on a sort-of sweet, semi-morbid note: My laugh is nothing like my mom’s, but it is similar in that it is unique, loud, and infectious. You can often hear it in the videos I record, and every time I think about how grateful I am that my son will always remember how much his mother loved to laugh – and how easily he could be the one to make her laugh in the first place.