The only footage of my childhood was filmed on April 14, 1974, but my memory of it dates to 1982. That may sound a little Rain Man, but the event captured on that short reel of eight millimeter film is an Easter egg hunt in my aunt’s finished basement, which means that my immediate family still lived in Denver. I was still surrounded by extended family: uncles who teased, grandparents who spoiled, cousins who either ignored or played with me depending upon our age difference.
I lost all of that before my second grade school year, when my immediate family rocketed away from that dependable nucleus like an errant electron. That was a fitting analogy in the atomic age, and my nuclear family wasn’t the only one to do it. Suburban streets were filled with moving vans and station wagons bearing out of state plates, little offshoots of big families peeling off and colonizing some faraway place where the money was better. For nuclear families like mine, families of origin were demoted to the occasional short summer vacation visit.
And so the last 11 years of my childhood played out thousands of miles from aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. No Thanksgivings where the cousins ate on wobbly card tables, no Easter egg hunts in the basement, no Christmas gift exchanges. Well, not for me. Life continued on in the nucleus regardless of my errant electron of a family’s atomic split. Those long lost relatives of mine weren’t lost to each other–they continued making new memories together year after year.
I think I was 15 when I saw the movie. My grandfather summoned his scattered electrons back to the nucleus for one last family reunion before he died. The summons was greeted with eye rolls and a good bit of hostility (“I’m not driving to Colorado every time your grandfather decides he’s dying”), but we packed up the station wagon and made the trip anyway. Grandpa was right, too: That was the last time that he saw his entire family in one place, though four more years passed before he died.
He was in a nostalgic mood during that visit, so Grandpa broke out his 8mm film projector and a shoe box filled with little reels. He spooled up the first one, and we watched a few silent minutes of a long forgotten rodeo. The handheld camera jerked and wobbled, but overall the old man did a pretty good job of keeping the cowboys in frame. Next up was a reel of his Shriner buddies zooming around in their go-carts, a sort of Keystone Cops short but with fezzes.
The action on screen shifted to my aunt and uncle’s basement. There we were–younger versions of my cousins and I–running around with Easter baskets, looking for brightly colored eggs in the dark, paneled basement. I was so small and so happy. I was with my family.
“Watch this,” Grandpa said, and he flicked a switch on the film projector. All of the cousins ran backwards, putting the Easter eggs back in their hiding places. We laughed on film, and we laughed watching the film. It’s the meta nature of this memory that fascinates me: the memory of a memory, as if that afternoon at age 15 is the plastic egg and that afternoon at age 7 is the chocolate treasure hidden within. I’m nostalgic for the day that my grandfather felt nostalgic.
I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over being jerked away from my family of origin shortly after that Easter in my aunt’s basement. When I visit the nucleus now, my extended family entertains each other with decades worth of shared anecdotes. “Remember that time we all went to that place and that thing happened?” someone asks, and they all laugh and reminisce. I laugh, too, but it’s the laughter of an observer rather than a participant. Even in a room filled with family I’m an owl in the eaves.
The only evidence that I ever belonged some place is sandwiched between a forgotten rodeo and a Shriner parade, long forgotten in an attic or the back of a closet if it even still exists. But on April 14, 1974 I was part of a family, and I sure looked happy.