I remember having this realization when I was a teenager that a family is like a lake and things ripple out, replay themselves in slightly different ways, generation after generation. We’re living with the things our parent did to us and they did those things in response to the things their parents did to them who, in turn, were done poorly or weirdly by their parents.
My dad had some old home movies he found digitized and I spent some time looking through them. It was something to see my Grandpa Bob again, my dead cousin, my Grandma and Grandpa Phillips, my dead uncles.
To see me, so young and vibrant. How much time do you spend as a teenager hating yourself and wishing to be pretty? And then you see yourself from half a lifetime away, and that young girl was pretty. She moved like a poem.
I was alarmed to discover that I had forgotten what my Uncle B’s voice sounded like. In many of the movies–they’re his movies–he’s talking constantly, providing a running commentary, and I didn’t recognize it. He’s been gone so long I’ve forgotten.
Here’s what I know, though, watching those movies as an adult, coming to them with four decades’ worth of experience with people, as much as I know about my dad’s family, I don’t know anything. The siblings don’t interact like people who like each other. My grandma is cautious in a way I don’t remember her being, but it’s clear in ever minute of film, no matter from what year it’s taken.
My one uncle talks incessantly, just drones on in the background telling stories about people no one knows anything about. My dad does that now, but seeing the video has given me some sympathy for it. How strange silence or normal conversation must seem if you’re used to that constant noise? I wonder what my uncle thought would happen if he stopped talking. I wonder if he didn’t exist for himself if he wasn’t speaking.
But they’re all performing. All the siblings. Except for my uncle, when he’s filming. Then, of course, he’s watching.
And all us kids are remarkably quiet. Maybe that’s what disconcerts me most of all. The Butcher might only be six or eight. So, at any given time, there are five kids under the age of eight at any family gathering. No one’s running around. No one’s being loud. No one’s getting up to play. Everyone is so well-behaved.
All of us.
It’s not natural.
Every once in a while, my cousin A. will call me and ask why we’re not close. I think next time I’m going to send her one of these videos and ask her to watch it like it’s a video of strangers. I wonder what she’d make of it.