In this frigid Northeast winter I had the warmth of family. Yes, I am an empty-nester times three, and my husband was off at work, but I spent the days inside rewinding, playing and burning old family VHS tapes onto DVDs. Finding myself right back in the moment, as I watched, I was clapping, smiling and enjoying special times of days past. Whether it was a party, vacation, special event or just a plain day watching our children learning to speak, walk, read or simply at play, it enveloped my thoughts.
The black chest in my daughter’s room with cranes painted on it was filled to the brim with the aging tapes in no particular order. There were even the reel-to-reel silent movies on which my uncle had taped my three brothers’ bar mitzvah parties in 1954, 1956 and 1963 and converted to VHS. I have no recollection of the older two bar mitzvah parties, when I was merely 18 months of age at one and 3 years old at the other, but what a hoot it was seeing “little me.” My mother always said that yellow was my color, and for the third one I even remember the dress I wore to match that sunny May day in 1963. To this day, I cannot orchestrate a major event without offering a bite-sized confectionery petit four selection. I still remember the taste of the flower-laced, sweet and colorfully frosted miniature cakes as they melted in my mouth at my brother’s coming-of-age celebration in ’63.
As the years go ‘round and ‘round, rotating through the Jewish holidays and milestone celebrations, so go the videos and the memories of our loved ones alive but living a distance away or gone from the world we know. Rather than being sad and eerily distant, the recordings were surprisingly comforting to watch and the memories felt current.
Certainly, the oils of Chanukah filled our kitchen as I labored over those hand-grated and freshly fried potato latkes for the large parties we hosted. The 1986 Chanukah party at our house can be seen on tape because we bought our first video camera that year, just in time for the 75th birthday celebrations of our fathers. Seated around our dining room table was an array of relatives, the eldest being my mother-in-law’s sister Ida.
As the camera was panned around the table, each guest was asked to speak on film for the first time. After being prodded, Aunt Ida, initially telling her sister that she didn’t know what to say, belted a short chuckle and smiled broadly as she announced, “I’m glad I’m at Sharon and Arnee’s house.” That’s when I got the idea, years before Steven Spielberg’s project took off, and started videotaping lots of our aunts, uncles and cousins for posterity.
Now, the treasured movies are not just squelching any cabin fever, they are downright fun to watch. Additionally, they are educational and teach life lessons. They’re not only reassuring, but they detail how people live in different stages of life. By capturing the parts that various people played in different stages of our lives, they show how life goes on and how we conduct ourselves based on those life lessons.
No doubt, some are harder to watch than others, like the testimonial from our cousin Harry about his intermittent interments and hard labor during World War II in Eastern Europe and his narrow escapes from death. Then again, an avuncular Harry was here to tell the stories and lived a long and fulfilling life after the tribulations, able to write his memoir, travel and enjoy many decades with his family and friends.
Lots of the stories from spunky family nonagenarians enthrall me. Having 100-year-old family history stories on film is spellbinding. Silly remembrances of friends who visited time and again when the children were little still make me laugh. After telling our son the story of one boy, six years his senior, showing up in tape after tape playing with him when he was both a baby and later as a toddler, he had no recollection of our friend’s son ever visiting with his parents.
My next project will be categorizing the approximately 150 videos and uploading them onto my new computer so I can cut and paste and make easy-to-watch memories for the family to share. Our children will not only have a movie chronicle of their lives, but will get to see the gatherings that took place in our home before they were born, as well as those from when they were too young to remember. Best of all, they’re sure to feel the love.
Talk about that warm-all-over feeling. Where are those old tapes you have stored? There’s no time like the present to start them rolling. The chill may just dissipate.
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist. A contributing writer at The Jewish Link, Sharon is a people-person and born storyteller who feels that everyone is entitled to a legacy. Sharon was acknowledged by two authors in their recently published books and is looking forward to the publication of her family history book.