Every Christmas, we play kazoos. Each member of the family—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, significant others—picks a colorful plastic instrument from the bag in which these simple little things have been dutifully hidden from the world like sacred treasures for the last 365 days, save a (hopeful) cleaning with soap and water sometime after their last use.
My aunt Patti hands out packets with the words to traditional Christmas carols. We don’t look because we already know all the words, and even if we didn’t, we can’t sing with kazoos in our mouths. My uncle Ken leads on harmonica and plays like a mad man. His energy is contagious. He moves from Jingle Bells to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as if he were Bob Dylan gearing up for the night’s encore performance. For a moment, the miniature gas fireplace behind him seems to blaze well beyond its capacity. The whole thing lasts no more than five minutes—five minutes of humming and buzzing and laughing before the Kazoos fall silent for another year. I capture a few seconds of the loosely-orchestrated commotion on my phone and immediately share it on social media. It’s a perfect clip. My brother is dancing in place with a green Kazoo poking from his mouth. My uncle’s harmonica trills above the voice of someone singing badly off-camera. My cousin and her long-time boyfriend stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the same place they stood last year and the year before. My dad pretends he’s playing a real instrument, a favorite pastime of his. My grandma sits on the badly-patterned basement couch and blithely claps her hand to the rhythm against her blue jeans. Somehow, the joy of the moment and the varied personalities of everyone in the room are effectively trapped in a fifteen second capsule, vacuum sealed and launched into cyber-space for all to see.
Three Christmases ago, as a gift for my mom, my sister had all of our family’s old home videos transferred to DVD and digital format. Previously, they had lain entombed inside an assortment of archaic cassette tapes, all but trapped due to the obsolete technology by which these countless hours of our lives were first preserved. The whole project had the feel of a major rediscovery, like the Titanic being reclaimed from the icy depths of the North Atlantic. It was as if we had launched a fleet of submersibles into the arcane waters of time with the hopes of salvaging some concrete vestiges of the family trips and birthday parties that had existed for so many years only in our memories. It was a scary feeling, I’ll admit. When Robert Ballard’s Argo photographed history’s most famous shipwreck in 1985, it proved that the images we hold in our minds are often grander than what we find in reality—especially when what we find in reality has been weathered by decades of erosion before being raised to the surface of the sea—the surface of our psyches, where these discoveries can be scrutinized against an unattainable ideal. I feared that my family’s memories would be recovered, appraised, and found unworthy to have ever been given a chance at a new life above the waves.
I was also surprised to learn that the converted cassette tapes had taken up nearly twenty DVD discs, each with a storage capacity of over two hours. At the time, I could not fathom how my mom—the sole operator of her hulking black SONY camcorder, a device seemingly so complex it could have been developed by NASA—had managed to decide that close to forty hours of family memories could be deemed worthy of immortality. A camera, I thought, should work something like a water filter, straining out idle chatter and boring activities as if they were pebbles and sediment, leaving nothing but the purest and most satisfying moments of life to be enjoyed by our future selves. The videos we presently record for our social media profiles, for instance, rarely crack a minute. More often, they are far shorter—mere seconds: carefully considered excerpts taken from the larger stories of our lives as a whole, directed and filmed by us in order to single-out a simple narrative or an overarching idea that we want to personally remember or to share with others. My family is quirky; I like beer, especially after a long day; running for fun is something that I occasionally do; I have a laid back sense of humor, as evidenced by the fact that I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself on camera. We don’t record what doesn’t “fit”; and if we do, by rare accident, we can simply edit out what we don’t like and leave it on the cutting room floor, forgotten. This is why, by today’s standards, it would take upwards of thirty years for me to fill with footage as much disk space as my mom did in less than ten years of my childhood—and that’s assuming that I’m posting at least one video of about fifteen seconds every single day.
Of course, this was not my mom’s style of filmmaking. The “stop recording” button of her camera meant very little to her, and her ability to discern camera-worthy events from non-camera-worthy events seemed, at least upon first review, questionable. Amidst footage of my aunt’s wedding, a family trip to Hersheypark, and my sister’s fourth birthday party, you can find such gems as: My Entire Extended Family Hitting an Inflatable Beach Ball in My Front Yard for Fifteen Minutes! or Sean Watching TV in an Empty Room! or Dad Ironing His Shirt for Work Tomorrow! Post such things on social media today and you’d never receive a friend request or a follower ever again. But this was my mom’s forte—her area of accidental creative genius. While still concurrently recording the “noteworthy” bits of life, she was also constantly producing her own miniature versions of My Dinner with Andre: rambling, almost aimless visual vignettes that leave everyone asking, Why was this recorded? What was the purpose?
Recently, I spent a year as a campus minister at a Catholic university. I worked each day with a team of six other students and a Carmelite nun in an office that was roughly the size of a sidewalk square. Needless to say, we became a close group. At some point near the end of the academic year, after having worked together for nearly nine months, I told a few of the students about my sister’s home video reclamation project. They seemed intrigued, none of them having been born before 1997 and, possibly, having little-to-no concept of “home videos”—at least not the way someone of my generation might. One student excitedly asked to see something—anything—that my sister had managed to resurrect. A keenly nostalgic person by nature, I thankfully had the digitalized files—all forty hour’s worth—stored online and available on my phone. Not only that, I had spent so many hours poring over this library that I had more or less memorized where the good stuff was. My sister even shared a document in which we all marked down the disc numbers and time stamps of these self-designated greatest hits so we could access them quickly. And what did we determine to be the “greatest hits?” Why, the family weddings, pre-school graduations, birthday parties, and family vacations, right? Well, not really.
My apologies to my aunts and uncles, but I fast-forwarded through your weddings. Sean and Mary-Kate, I’m sorry, but I’ve never watched more than a few seconds of your pre-school Christmas concerts, and that was only to hear Sean obnoxiously belt out FIVE GOLDEN RINGS at twice the volume of his peers during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Self: the t-ball games just aren’t that fascinating, no matter how funny it might be to watch you imitate Bill Buckner over and over again. The memories that were supposed to stick—the ones that we were all supposed to be happy to see again after almost twenty years of joking about them and misremembering them—were not the ones that ended up on our list. Rather, the memories signified by the time stamps on the document we compiled were the ones we forgot existed—the ones that felt as though they were recorded as the result of some mistake, as if my mom had forgotten how to turn the camera off and accidentally captured ten minutes more than she meant to capture. The moments when, these days, no one would think to grab a phone and take a video. The normal moments.
Sitting at my desk in my campus ministry office, I pulled out my phone and quickly identified a file. I held the device up so that the students present could watch along with me. A red-headed boy with checkered pajamas waddled across the screen towards a wooden table in what could loosely be identified as a dining room. Cheaply upholstered chairs aligned neatly with mismatched placemats, and an ugly overhead light cast shadows on bare walls—nothing but plain white sheet rock save a few photographs in simple frames and some obvious housewarming trinkets of eclectic style. A man and a woman were seated at a table: my grandparents. These days, my screen is the only place I can see them. The red-headed boy, a three-year-old version of a human being who would grow to be 6’5”, barely stood tall enough to reach my grandfather’s lap. My dad, who looked frighteningly like my current self, asked what I would be leaving out for Santa that evening. I had a list well prepared. I brought out the tea. Then the cookies. Then a carrot, for Rooodahf (praise God I shook that Staten Island accent). Theoretically, that should have covered all the bases, but no: out I came from the kitchen a fourth time with a box of Saltines. I disappeared again, strutting with pride as I went to retrieve cereal for Santa. My dad looked sheepishly into the camera, as if to ask if anyone watching this insignificant bit of footage one year, five years, or even twenty years from the present time was finding any of this as comical as he was finding it.
There was something so warm about the scene that even still, I can hardly believe it’s clearly the dead of winter. It all lasted about five minutes before eventually being put to a stop by my dad, possibly concerned for Santa’s diet. None of it was scripted. None of it was even slightly planned. I cannot even venture a guess as to what my mom had expected to record that evening; the video just started with everyone going about their business—no introduction, no context. Some unknown impulse caused my mom to go into her closet, unpack her camcorder, set it up, and turn it on, all so she could record a quiet Christmas Eve in the home of a young family. And that’s exactly what she got. No viral Internet moments to be had here. No “likes” to be gained. Just an unintended insight into the life of a three-year-old and his parents in their first home together.
The students enjoyed the video. They laughed at my clumsy walk and my self-congratulatory smile. They got a kick out of my peculiar desire to feed Saltine crackers to Santa Claus. But this particular segment of footage will always mean more to those actually immortalized in its grainy playback. I cannot speak for my mom or dad (and no one can speak for my grandparents, both gone long ago), but to me, this mostly ordinary scene is filled with love. And not the type of love that would be totally evident to any viewer. Rather, the quiet, unfiltered type of love. The love of a father who looks at his three-year-old son with wonder, perhaps having once dreamed of the day he would be able to put out cookies and milk for Santa with his own child, and not having imagined it would go quite like this. The love of a mother who wants to record everything—even things that have no business being recorded—because she doesn’t want to forget a moment of what those first years were like—those first years of being a mother. The love of grandparents who have done this whole parenting gig before, but still laugh at the unpredictability of a child. When I watch such videos and relive experiences that are so old and foreign they feel they could have happened to someone entirely different than me, it feels as though I have come across some sort of hard evidence of a profound truth—hard evidence that I was, indeed, loved. That we were all, indeed loved. I still am. We all still are.
And out of forty hours of memories, this Christmas Eve of 1992 is far from the only one to provide such proof. That “greatest hits” list? It’s filled from top-to-bottom with super obscure moments—not a single one of which any of us could recall having ever taken place before having found recorded proof of it. In one, my mom drops the camera to tend frantically to my brother who topples like a sack of potatoes off the back bench of a tricycle. In another, my dad tries to diffuse a fight between my brother and I over the cause of a destroyed sandcastle. There are a lot of tears on both sides—a reality my dad confronts by tactfully looking at both of us and declaring confidently: YOU. STOP YOUR CRYING! There’s also hours of disc space devoted to these sort of informal art exhibitions during which my mom would record each of us going through all of our school crafts and drawings as we attempted, like tongue-tied museum curators, to explain what each one was and how it was made. Overall, the “greatest hits” are a hodgepodge of these overly-long, raw moments—each providing new insights into everyone involved in their conception, for the sake of everyone involved in their conception.
Oftentimes, I wonder what today’s youth will one day see of their long-forgotten childhoods. I hope that, like me, it will be proof that they were loved and are still. I fear, however, that this may not be the case. At least not in the same way. Where do the ten second Instagram videos go? Who even sees the cleverly concocted video clips we store on our phones? What a marvel, today’s technology! One need not do as my mom once did—preparing a camcorder to capture, well…something? Anything, hopefully? Instead, we have cameras at our disposal with the ability to be activated within seconds. But what do we capture? The funny bits. The clever bits. The cute bits. The bits that cause us to think I have got to get this on video! Assuming today and tomorrow’s parents even take the time to somehow dig through their social media profiles and their storage clouds to raise such distant memories, their children will be sure to have plenty of videos of themselves doing “cute” things. Or of their parents saying funny things. Or of beautiful things, like sunsets during a beach vacation. And that will be nice. Those memories will surely provide some future joy. But they won’t reflect real life. They won’t feel familiar. In their recovery, they will feel distant, having captured a world that is more-or-less manufactured. Well-designed showcases of life rather than objective and sincere snapshots of life.
I think back to the discovery of the shipwrecked Titanic. Seventy-three years elapsed between its sinking and its recovery, and when it was finally filmed by the Argo submersible, it was many miles from its expected place of repose. In fact, it was only in examining the debris field, which stretched thousands of meters along the ocean floor like a subaquatic trail of breadcrumbs, that the body of the ship was finally located. And perhaps more than the bulk of the wreckage, the debris field—a peppering of random artifacts—offered insight to scientists as to the nature of Titanic’s end. The “greatest hits” of my family’s recovered memories, I think, are something like a debris field. Maybe they’ll never be as important as the events by which our lives are measured—the birthdays, weddings, and landmark family gatherings; or even the cleaner, streamlined events we set out to purposely record. Like debris forever separated from the body of a ship, they’ll always be viewed as separate, and somehow of a different tenor. They may not be the events that define the life of a family, but they are surely the events that explain it. They are the events that, when rediscovered and appraised, seem to point to something beyond themselves—to the larger discovery: the love that infuses them all.
I still do enjoy my ten-second Kazoo clip. It’s stored on Instagram in some sort of archive. Probably a hundred or more people saw it when I first posted it. It existed for twenty-four hours, and then it was gone. Other than me, no one will ever see it again. And I think that’s okay. It was funny while it lasted—and I think people genuinely appreciated the weirdness of this unique family tradition. But ultimately, it serves no purpose now. Like the billion videos recorded and posted on social media over the course of a year, it will forever lie in some inaccessible trench at the bottom of the sea, dying with me and all the people who post such videos. In the future, who will ever find them? Our children? Our children’s children? Perhaps they will be destined to forever comb the ocean floor looking for the Titanic, the mighty shipwreck that will somehow shed insight into the past. They’ll bring in their submarines and their sonars and their expensive underwater drones, but they’ll find nothing but sand.
By Fr. Zachary Burns