"Somewhere, on an 8mm cassette, buried under a pile of dusty artifacts in my parents’ garage, lies an old home movie taken on a family trip to Yosemite. I am operating the camcorder.
"I can’t see anything! It isn’t working!"
“Did you push the button?” my father asks. “Is the red light on?”
I am trying to film a waterfall. I want to narrate it like a nature documentary on TV.
"It’s all black!"
In my memory, my parents keep walking away from me up the trail as my frustration turns to panic. I still can’t see anything. It still isn’t working.
Then, a stranger’s voice: “The lens cap is on.”
The arrival of a video camera in our household coincided with the arrival of my younger brother and older sister, distant cousins who joined our family after their mother died. Despite the upheaval in all of our lives, and the lasting joys and conflicts that ensued, our home movies from that time are fairly unremarkable. These days, we can quickly capture most any moment on our phone and immediately share it via e-mail, so it might seem to strange to remember that, back then, home movies took a lot more planning—and the footage was often much more boring as a result. There’s a forced singalong around the piano at Christmas time; there’s my sister rolling her eyes at my father’s, “Tell the folks at home what you’re doing!” There’s a different trip to Yosemite, this time in winter: all of us sledding down small, self-made hills, trying to enact a scene worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos. We never stood a chance, our “bloopers” end in giggles and our cries for help ring false.
I wasn’t planning to write about my own family when writing about Stories We Tell, but, well, here we are. I’m certain I am remembering important details wrong, but even if I watched these home movies today, and recounted the events exactly as they occurred, my perception would surely differ from my siblings’. My truth about growing up in our patchwork family differs wildly from my older brother’s, but our two truths are much closer to each other than to the truths of our three younger brothers. We’ve argued over the details of what happened when we were young, but as adults it’s often easier to live in our isolated truths. Like many dysfunctional families (like all families, as the joke goes), we seem content to let the story lie. It can be hard, often painful, to interrogate family mythology in search of some unified truth.
Say “truth” enough times and it loses all its meaning.”