My Monday mornings are, like most mornings, pretty routine: Roll out of bed around 6-6:30 or so, brush teeth, get dressed, pull on a pair of beat-up sneakers, pop in some ear-buds, switch on my iPod and head out the door for a long walk with my Alaskan malamute. When we return home, my head is clear, my dog is tired and it’s time to get to work.
Monday mornings stand out slightly because they’re my time to listen to the latest episode of This American Life, a weekly hour-long public radio show that investigates, well, aspects of “American life.” You’ve probably heard of it.
I’ve been listening to This American Life since 2006. I came across the program accidentally one Saturday afternoon while my mother chauffeured me home after a high school cross-country meet. Looking for music to fill the space of the long drive, my fingers by chance switched the radio dial in my mom’s car to our local public radio station. After listening to the first several minutes of the “TAL” episode that was playing (319), I was hooked.
Over the years, several episodes have become favorites: 422, 443, 487, 488, 489, 560…. And now, 225: Home Movies, an episode that came out in 2002 before I started listening, but was rebroadcast last weekend.
The episode opens with an anecdote from an “average” person, then an expert’s analysis of that person’s experience—typical of most This American Life episodes. Straining my ears and cranking up the volume on my iPod to hear over the din of morning traffic, I learned there are some qualities typical to American home movies. Filmmaker Alan Berliner explains them to This American Life host Ira Glass. Berliner would know: he spent six years putting together “The Family Album,” an hour-long documentary that pieces together parts of old home movies.
One major characteristic of these movies, Berliner tells Glass, is that, “Perhaps 60 percent, 70 percent of home movies contain images of children, I would say up to about the age of 12 or so. And then it stops…. And that’s because puberty happens, adolescence happens, and you suddenly have a kind of tension within the family in terms of the relation between parent and child.”
“Home movies are a family’s way of preserving, forever, the thought, we were a nice family,” Glass concludes, neatly analyzing up Berliner’s observations. “We loved each other. Any feeling, any fact, about the family besides that fact, generally does not make it into the films.”
“We were a nice family.” The words repeated over and over again in my head as my dog and I strode past identical brick houses, each presumably filled with their own families.
Was my family “nice” when I was a kid? In reality, no: I later learned (in my teens) a seemingly normal familial façade shrouded secret relationships, lies and money problems. Not nice.
But I probably won’t ever have the opportunity to at least see if my family seemed nice to the outside world because most, if not all, of the home movies from my childhood years were destroyed.
Last winter my family with whom I live—my mother and 21-year-old brother—were forced to hastily move out of our rental house. In the middle of that chaos—the shock that we would have to leave, the fraught search for another house, the reality of money issues, the emotional rollercoaster of the prospect of homeless—that’s when the movies were lost.
Knowing we’d have to go somewhere by the end of January without having yet found a place to live, around Thanksgiving (when we’d been told we’d have to leave) my mom urged my brother and me to start packing. We crammed our stuff into boxes like we had two years prior when we were forced out of my childhood home, and stowed everything away in the garage.
One cold and rainy morning, I went outside to take out the trash and observed that one large cardboard box we had packed the previous day had accidentally had been left outside overnight.
As I flipped open the soggy flaps on top, I cringed. I saw dozens of black plastic bricks, the marker on their handwritten labels faded and pooling together in multicolored water droplets. It was the box containing the home movies from the early part of my parents’ marriage—and the childhood I shared with my brother. They were ruined.
Did any traces of my childhood remain? From what I can remember, my mother was always the one to pull out a camera at Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthday parties. She must have photos, right? I thought anxiously as we crisscrossed the neighborhood’s suburban grid. As I walked past some shoeboxes in someone’s trashcan, I felt instantly a wave of calmness rush over me as I remembered helping my mother unpack similar shoeboxes filled with decades-old photos at our new residence. That meant there are at least still images from my childhood that exist.
But what about movies?
Crossing a busy intersection I remembered something else I had unpacked after our move last winter: my CDs. Some played music, but others held photo files from the laptop I had as a teen. Perhaps they held other relics of my family’s past….
Will I find home movies on those CDs? The answer, in Part II, will be posted tomorrow morning.
Lingering thoughts for you, my reader:
- Do you have home movies? If yes, do they adhere to Berliner's observations?
- What relics of your childhood do you cherish most?
- What is your most embarrassing childhood relic?