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

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.”

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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