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.

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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