Scenes from a Marriage

One woman’s obsessive, at times comical quest to produce the perfect anniversary present for her parents—a celluloid time machine to take them back to their midcentury past—allows her to see them in a different light

by Mel Miskimen
marriage image
The author’s parents, Marian and Marc Cieslik, as they embark on their 60-year adventure.
Photograph: Courtesy of Mel Miskimen

My sister and I were trying to come up with something really big to give our parents for their 60th wedding anniversary. Sixty. Years. How had they done it? Six decades with the same person, in the same house, bought right after they were married. How Ozzie and Harriet can you get?

The gift would be presented during a special family weekend—my sister and I and our husbands, the grandkids and their significant others, everyone’s dogs, all under the same huge rental-cabin roof on the shore of a lovely lake in Wisconsin’s Northwoods region. And we wanted it to inspire emotions somewhere in the range of V-E Day, Beatlemania and the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

Here are the ideas we had come up with so far: a personal greeting from their favorite actor, Tom Hanks (aka The Son They Never Had); a cruise to Alaska (a trip they had always dreamed of taking); and tickets to a Notre Dame football game (driving from Milwaukee to South Bend, Indiana, had been a favorite road trip of theirs back in the middle of the last century).

I don’t know when or how their Notre Dame fan-ness happened. They weren’t alumni. They hadn’t even gone to college. I think it had something to do with Notre Dame’s Catholic-ness and its win-one-for-the-Gipper-ness, which fit perfectly with my parents’ can-do, roll-up-our-sleeves, make-it-happen mentality. They, along with my aunt and uncle, would drive the station wagon to Indiana to watch Fighting Irish football, and we had the film footage to prove it.

I had committed to memory the silent images of my mother and aunt walking across the college’s stadium parking lot in their 1950s tweed suits, waving their white-gloved hands at the camera, each with a yellow mum the size of one of Saturn’s moons pinned to her lapel.

The Notre Dame Game was one of the classics in our home-movie collection, along with footage of our expeditions to Glacier National Park and Mount Rushmore, our forays into state parks . . . and who could forget the 1957 Policemen’s Picnic. The egg toss and tug-of-war scenes? Cinematic genius.

Then the Merlot wore off, and reality set in.

The Tom Hanks personal greeting would be cool, but seriously? How? No one had any connections. The cruise? Beached for lack of funding. Notre Dame tickets? In theory a good idea, but in reality quite dicey. How would a doddering mother with bladder issues and a father with a bad back and a gimpy leg (and who refused to wear his hearing aids) get from their home in Wisconsin to stadium seats in another state? Not going to happen.

But wait. What if they could relive Notre Dame games and great family moments via film? It had been ages since anyone dragged up the boxy projector from underneath my parents’ basement steps and tugged out the temperamental Bell & Howell movie screen that was stuffed into the back corner of the basement closet.

I proposed that we have those old 8 mm films digitally transferred to something 81-year-old-viewer-friendly. Yes? No? Since my sister couldn’t come up with anything better, my idea was deemed good enough.

The digital-transfer place was in a nondescript two-story concrete office building, the kind that could have served as the backdrop for TV-show murder re-enactments. I explained to the receptionist that I wanted the seven steel reels of film digitized. As for background music, something snappy. Upbeat. Big band. Swing. Maybe some Louis Prima? Oh, and could they pop the “Notre Dame Victory March” into the appropriate frames?

Of course they could. Absolutely. No problem. All I had to do was pony up the money for custom editing, which she guesstimated would take 10, 20, maybe 25 hours at $135 per hour. Uh-huh. My good-enough idea was beginning to fade to black.
She offered another suggestion. I could have the films digitally transferred to an external hard drive and try putting something together myself.

Yes. Yes, I could. I had the software. I had the know-how. I had the time. I also had a voice in my head. “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” it said.

I know me. I am a perfectionist. I had visions of myself barricaded in my bedroom office turned editing suite, sitting on a very nonergonomic chair, slowly sinking into insanity as I pieced together a narrative that I deemed worthy of public viewing.

Or...I could take the easy way out. I mean, my parents would be just as happy seeing the films as they remembered them, in all their over/underexposed, hair-on-the-lens, out-of-focus simplicity.

The easy way out? Who was I kidding. My parents had never taken the easy way out of anything. They scrimped and saved to send my sister and me to a hoity-toity Catholic academy for girls instead of the just-OK public school. They denied themselves the trappings of middle-class American life so that we could have better teeth. They paid for our weddings, took us across the USA in our un-air-conditioned Chevrolet, helped out with our babies and house payments. So couldn’t I make a few edits here and there?

The blue-steel reels were transformed into blue-folder icons on a sleek, smaller-than-I-expected external hard drive. I clicked on a random folder. Up came our living room in its Early American heyday. That forest-green wingback sofa! Those gaudy flowered drapes my mother had sewn. The cobbler’s bench of a coffee table, made by a policeman friend of my father’s who, right after finishing it, killed himself with his service revolver.

Uh-oh. This and other macabre tidbits were bound to come up once this abridged version of their lives began unspooling. What if my parents saw it not as a tribute but more as This Was Your Life and Now You Are Old and Your Life Is Over?

Sure, there was bound to be a lump in a throat here or there, a welling of tears over a friend who had died, but that was only natural. My task would be to leave them feeling as if there was still a lot more life yet to come. Though I couldn’t help envisioning a drinking game in which my sister and I downed a shot every time they sighed heavily, then intoned, “He’s dead now.”

The camera panned across the sofa. Here was my mother in a pink shirtdress and black heels, talking to my sister, who wore a long-sleeved, baby-blue voile creation that my mother had sewn from a Butterick pattern. I’d have known it anywhere: Prom, 1967.

Shoes and boots were the only things my mother couldn’t make for us. Oh, and underwear. Although she threatened to. She made our winter coats, bathing suits, skirts, pants. She even made me a pair of jeans once, and because she put so much effort into topstitching them—“Look! Just like the ones in the store!”—I felt I owed it to her to wear them at least once.

Back to the prom. My sister’s date, Dave Something or Other, arrived in his matching baby-blue tux, with the exact same hipster haircut my 22-year-old son was currently sporting.

Poor Dave. My sister jettisoned him soon after the prom and took up with a boy who lived down the block, a boy my parents weren’t all that keen on, a boy she eventually married—a marriage my parents told her not to go ahead with, but what did they know? It lasted about as long as it takes water to boil in a microwave. I stumbled upon some rare footage of the guy and wondered if the statute of We Told You So had expired.

Folder 002 opened with a familiar shot of a ghostly, overexposed, two-year-old me, wearing a bonnet and coat, standing on our newly poured driveway.

Our suburban neighborhood had a not-yet-lived-in air. The ranch houses looked the same—all white, like the people who lived in them. There were no trees. No lawns. The street was unpaved. All looked sterile, bleak, until my mother swept into the frame.

She entered from our back screen door in her iridescent taffeta swing coat, the one that eventually became the cover for the birdcage. She wore a small white hat, matching gloves and redder-than-red lipstick. Her dark, wavy hair was cut Shirley MacLaine short. I’d gotten so used to her being old and frail that I had forgotten what a babe she used to be.

The next frame was First Communion Procession, 1957. My sister played a starring role at the head of a river of little girls in white dresses followed by Brylcreemed boys, hands folded in prayer position. My mother filmed it while walking backward—so cinema verité.

Scene shift. A crowded beach. 1958? My mother walks across the sand wearing her Betty Grable pinup-style taxicab-yellow bathing suit that zipped up the back—a suit that whenever mentioned brings a faraway look to my father’s eyes. She bought it in 1947, so in this film it was a decade old. I don’t know which is more remarkable: that she kept it until it disintegrated in the late 1960s or that after 10 years and two kids, she still fit into it.

Next, a tight close-up shot of her rear end—my father’s recurring cinematic theme.

Dad had a few cameo appearances in our family films, a walk-on here and there as an occasional supporting cast member. But mostly he was the cameraman. The director. The documentarian. He put us in our contexts. We were as he saw us. And how were we? From where I was sitting, we looked as if we were a heck of a lot of fun. Problems? Yeah, we had our share, but they were in a different frame. Somewhere off to the side and out of focus.

I spent that pre-anniversary summer neglecting my garden, my dog, my family, my person. For eight, 10, 12 hours a day I sat in front of my monitor, taking breaks for necessities—eyedrops, caffeine, urination. I made an outline of scenes to include, then titles. I added dissolves, dropped in appropriate music, ensured that segues made sense. And I worried. Was this getting too sentimental?

It was hard not to let my ego interfere. There was so much footage I could have included to bring my sister to her knees and guarantee that I would wear the crown of Most Favored Daughter. But this was meant to be about my parents and for my parents. I kept in clips of Shadow, our long-ago dog. My graduation from eighth grade. (Why didn’t anyone tell me that haircut was not working for me?) Cocktail parties where aunts and uncles looked like the cast of Mad Men. My grandmother at the same age I am now. (Please, someone tell me my upper arms are not that flabby.) So many people crammed into our galley kitchen, it was a fire hazard.

I got to a point where I couldn’t do any more. The timing was not bad, the music was OK, and frankly, I couldn’t sit through another dry run. It was bad enough that my sound track of Frank Sinatra, TV themes, old commercials and Broadway show tunes played on an endless loop in my head.

The family weekend commenced. Corgis sank, Labradors swam. Champagne flowed. And then . . . it was go time.

We assembled in our flannels.

I sat in the back of the room like a nervous producer on opening night. The beginning black-and-white photo montage of my parents in their early dating days started. Sinatra crooned, and a caption appeared: In the beginning there was a guy and his Kodak who documented life as we knew it...

Then, that first home movie—the one of me standing in the driveway—and we were on our way. What I expected from the audience was not what I got. In the places where I thought there’d be shrieks of laughter, I got nothing. Scenes of embarrassing moments brought silence, and the quiet scenes got laughs. And that fun drinking game? Let’s see, there were three He/she’s gones, four God rest her/his souls, and then I lost count or didn’t care.

Finally, the Notre Dame footage, but not the scene I had watched as a child.

Cue: “The Rakes of Mallow,” played by the Notre Dame marching band. This footage must have been shot in the late ’60s. My mother and my Uncle Jerry are sitting on lawn chairs in front of a chain-link fence, drinking from white Styrofoam cups. She’s in a plaid double-breasted pantsuit, a scarf tied around her hair à la Grace Kelly.

My uncle is in a blue V-neck sweater and white dickey topped off by a natty Notre Dame bucket hat. He gives her a squeeze. She giggles. Then a smooch. She giggles. A quick cut to a shot of my dad looking dapper in a plaid jacket, his Ray-Bans off-kilter. Then another quick cut, and we find ourselves inside the stadium. Here comes the band.

Cue: “The Victory March.”

A few pass plays, then a quick cut and we’re in the backseat of my uncle’s Ford Fairlane station wagon watching my mother, looking rather loopy, as she slowly slides down, down, down the front seat and disappears. The only thing left of her is her hand, draped over the back of the front seat, followed by her giving a thumbs-up as the “Notre Dame Victory March” ends.
And scene. Followed by: 60 years and counting...

Roll credits.

The early reviews? Outstanding! We watched it again. And again. Yeah, it was that good. Of course, my mother had to fill us in on the particulars of that day in the Notre Dame parking lot. Oh, she blamed my uncle and his libations. Said that she was all caught up in the moment and that it was the first and last time she had puked out a car window.

It turned out to be the perfect gift. For me. That summer I spent staring at my computer monitor, watching all those home movies over and over, I got to see my parents for the first time as people—sometimes out of focus, sometimes overexposed, maybe not always in the most flattering outfits or lighting. But I truly loved what I saw.

MEL MISKIMEN is the author of Cop’s Kid: A Milwaukee Memoir. Her mother died shortly before this story went to press.

Next: My Years as a Widow-in-Waiting

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First Published Thu, 2013-06-06 15:58

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