The video is labeled “Campbell Family Events…1980-1996.” It opens with a festive scene in the basement of our childhood house on Karikal Drive, Christmas 1980. The video camera is set on a tripod and able to rotate only slightly on its axis to capture a limited field of view. The old super-eight used for filming gives the appearance of a hazy skin over the picture so the image has an eerie, ghostlike quality. There is a Christmas tree to the right, the children’s version that is allowed icicles and hand-made ornaments and dad’s favorite disco-ball-star tree topper--all the things not allowed on the more formal tree upstairs. The gifts are wrapped in matching paper, adorned with coordinating holiday bows and nametags and scattered across horrifically patterned carpeting. The unnamed man behind the camera speaks to each character in the scene as they scurry in and out of view; he seems to hope to inspire more intriguing footage:
“Heather, what do you have there?” “Chris, hold it up so we can see—ooooh.”
The characters he speaks to in the flim are the same people who are sitting together19 years later, watching the video with him. My mother, my brother and I. Only now, there are two extras added to the audience: my 5 year old niece Stella and my 2 month old daughter, Opal.
A three year old version of myself, stares back at us from the TV. She is dressed in pink jammies with the plastic feeties built in and has long brown locks tousled from a restless night’s sleep spent listening for Santa. Her nose is stuffed so the M’s sound like B’s. She doesn’t notice the large dollhouse in the corner that is just barely covered in a few sheets of gift wrap. Excitement has rendered her blind. She is simple and heartbreakingly sweet as she hands out the gifts to the appropriate people, asking for help along the way because she is far from being able to read.
My brother is six in the video; also wearing jammies with the plastic feeties, but his are blue. He speaks fast and is all business. He opens his gifts as quickly as they are handed to him, practically throwing each one behind him with little to no acknowledgement, making way for the next. He continuously checks to make sure he is lined up with the camera.
My mother is 28 in the video, with dark feathered waves pulled back like curtains from her thick, oval glasses. She looks slender and so much more grown-up than I must have looked at that age. It is a strange thing to see her at an age that is four years younger than I am now, and with two kids. She is quiet and helpful as she gathers the discarded paper and compliments the gifts. She looks tired but able to enjoy her kids’ delight.
My father, who steps in and out from behind the camera, is also in the video at an age that's four years younger than I, seven years younger than Jesse. This is filmed long before my dad gets braces so he still has that dapper space between his front teeth. He wears a navy velour jogging suit with a single chalk-stripe down the sleeve and the pants. He guides little-Heather towards the dollhouse, the thing (we learn every time we watch this video) he was up until the wee hours of the morning putting together.
This is the first time I have watched this video with my family since Opal was born. My family came to visit from Ohio last weekend and my father, brother and niece got to meet Opal for the very first time. (My mother came out right after Opal was born and got to hold her when she was less than 24 hours old.) It really was an amazing thing to watch my father hold her tiny body in the crook of his meaty arms and sway her gently. And to see my brother bop up and down with her propped over his shoulder, whispering into her ear. My darling niece was certain she could read Opal’s mind and spoke to her in a secret language. (At one point, she walked up to Opal, held her foot for a moment and then declared to the room that Opal was hungry.)
My father video taped some of our weekend together. And as we all enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of mom and dad’s fashion choices on that fateful Christmas day nearly two decades ago, while feasting on key lime pie and homemade margaritas, I couldn’t help but to look down at what I was wearing and think of the day when the footage of this present moment would be viewed by the next tier of family and the little girl with the stuffy nose and brand new dollhouse would step even further into the distance.