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

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.

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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