There is a video.
A video that a distant biological relative who I will never know posted on YouTube. It’s from before my Uncle Mac accidentally shot himself in the head; a time capsule from a moment when my family was a vivid, magnetic thing.
The video is from 1982 or 1983. Thirty-two minutes into the footage the camera finds my mother’s face.
My mother, with her brown hair feathered around her forehead, beams in an eggplant sweater. Her bangs fall into her eyes, graze her plump cheeks. Underneath her purple sweater she is pregnant with me or Rebecca, with one of us, depending on if this is 1982 or 1983. Maybe no one else in the room knows, maybe that is what her smile is about when the camera lens finds her.
Or maybe she isn’t pregnant at all. If this is September of 1982—it could be September of 1982—then I am two months old and my mom is not yet pregnant with Rebecca.
I could be reading more into it because I want this thing to be laced with as much meaning as possible, I want to make it a secret message that the universe preserved specifically for me.
The beginning of the video is filled with people explaining to one another how to operate all the buttons on the camera.
Is this on? They say.
How do I get it to move back out? My father’s voice asks from behind the camera.
You mean zoom, you want to zoom out? Says a voice I don’t recognize.
Sure. How do I zoom out?
My father absorbs the new word into his vocabulary without being shitty about it. He is curious and generous behind the camera, clicking buttons. He will hand the camera to someone else in a few minutes and get his guitar.
The video is one hour and nine minutes long.
In the two days that I have had this gem in my possession I have watched the video twenty-seven times. Not the whole thing, I have watched the whole thing once, probably.
The other twenty-six times I fast forwarded to the 32 minute mark to watch the snippet of my mother, shaking her bangs and pretending not to like being on camera.
Then I skip over my aunt Bridget singing a purposefully tone deaf rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb, and my Mom-mom and her two sisters and brother singing a song about shooting The Big Bad Wolf in the head.
It is worth noting that Mom-mom gestures to her head with her finger gun during this performance, while her siblings all point their finger-guns at the camera, like pros.
Mom-mom places the barrel of her finger directly to her right temple in a sick foreshadowing of the way her own son will expire a year (or two?) after this video was filmed. None of these smiling drunk people have any idea about that event now, in this paneled basement in their sweater vests.
There is a sugary looking sheet cake on the table and the guitars are coming out and people smoke cigarettes inside. The white plumes rise lazily into the frame, insubstantial as ghosts.
These people who were my family are alive and funny, amused and amusing. Their teeth are the color of human teeth. The men wear ties. The women hair sprayed their hair, put on earrings.
God. They really like each other. They just fucking enjoy every stupid thing about themselves. They are laughing again. They brush one another’s arms to say I’m here behind you as they squeeze through to the bar or the bathroom.
At the 45:28 mark, I let the video play out at it’s own speed. That’s when my father takes up a chair on the right side of the screen and his brother Patrick (who twenty-five years after this video will become the mayor of a small New Jersey town) sits on the left. My father strums his guitar to nudge the assembled aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings to quiet their cackling conversations and arrange their voices instead into music.
Uncle Patrick pretends to read a newspaper until this transformation happens. He’s a cool customer in his thick glasses and his suit jacket. He obviously thinks he is the lead role in this play, but doesn’t want to embarrass the assembled cast with their supporting roles. Every part is important he seems to say as the newspaper crinkles under his hands.
My father’s hair is dark chestnut brown. It must have gone silver after Mac died, because I have never known him without a thick shock of silver hair.
They play The Boxer. The whole room hushes and lets my father and Pat carry the vocals. Daddy sings the lead baritone and Pat’s tenor floats on top. If I close my eyes they could be the same person’s voice stacked on top of itself.
Then everyone in the room sings Where Have all the Flowers Gone? They all know the lyrics. The people whose job it is to sing the harmony fill in and the people who are meant to sing the melody do their job, too. They all know who they are.
Then Proud Mary, then Joy to the World, then a song I don’t know and I can’t understand the lyrics to because my father drops out of the singing to enjoy a cigarette and nobody else in the room has his powers of diction and projection. And then it becomes obvious to everyone that he is the real star of this home movie; it can’t go on without him. So he jumps back in for the final song, Blowing in the Wind.
Then that’s it.
That is what I lost.
To know precisely its size and shape, it’s sound and texture, to put a quantity on it—this much laughter, this many strokes on the arm, this many interruptions, inside jokes. This much applause. This much admiration.
This much trying and not trying.
This is it. This piece is exactly the size and shape of the hole that was dug inside me when I lost all of these people who were my family.
So I watched it twenty-seven times.
Each time there is a part of me that isn’t empty anymore.
And the feeling of having that spot stoppered for an hour and nine minutes is as gruesome as it is magnificent.