Warren's parents owned a movie camera and did a stunning job of documenting their home life from holidays to parades to visits from family to travels of their own. They left behind over 50 color reels before camcorders came along. The oldest date back to Art and Ellen's first apartment in Chicago when they were just newlyweds, before the move to Ohio, before the children.
Warren and I have started watching a few reels - not in any particular order - each night before heading to bed.
Warren has seen most of these before, although he has not watched them in decades. When he was younger, Ellen would routinely drag the children into the family room and make everyone watch home movies. As Warren and his siblings grew older and more insistent in their refusal, the home movie nights petered out.
Our homegrown Nights at the Movies have been a revelation for us both.
For Warren, it is a chance to see with adult eyes his childhood and youth. There is his grandfather Wilson, who died before Warren was two, walking alongside his daughter, Ellen, who is holding his infant grandson, Warren. There is grandmother Wilson, whose smile is even more infectious and inclusive on film than in photos. Here are Warren and his younger brother Brian, opening Christmas stockings and dancing with childish glee around their presents. There they are again, holding their new baby sister.
When Warren's grandmother Hyer appeared, holding a grandchild and smiling, Warren laughed and said "that is the only time you will ever see my grandmother smiling." A night later, when she appeared in other scene, still smiling, I looked at Warren and said "apparently your grandmother smiled a lot more than you remember."
For me, it is a chance to see Warren's past in both a fuller and more compressed way than looking at photos (which we have also done). Fuller because now I can see the smiles and the movement that give life to the still photos. More compressed because the scene hangs on the wall for a brief bit of time and then is gone, sometimes before it sinks in.
One of the reels we have watched included a few moments of Warren's high school graduation, which I remember in great detail because I was so enamored of him at the time. I gave a small gasp when Warren appeared immediately after graduation, talking to someone and smiling broadly.
I knew that boy. That boy, the one right there, is the one sitting beside me each night as we watch films.
Yes, I remembered that graduation well, but seeing even a glimpse of it again took me by surprise.
My favorite play is Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The entire last act has Emily, who has died in childbirth, reliving a day of her life. She has been warned by the other dead in the cemetery not to go back but chooses to relive her 12th birthday, exclaiming, "Oh, I want the whole day."
Emily struggles between her joy at experiencing life again and the pain of knowing how fast that life went and how much she took for granted. When Emily first sees her mother in the kitchen on this relived day, she can't help but say, "Oh! how young Mama looks! I didn't know Mama was ever that young." Moments before her father enters the kitchen, Emily breaks down and cries out, "I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another."
As I watch the home movies, I have some of that same bittersweet sense of time. Art and Ellen are so young, with their whole married life still before them. Warren is so young in his graduation gown. While the mind can accept that I am watching something from 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago, the heart lags behind. Like Emily, I want to say to these flickering shadows, "just look one minute as if you really saw one another."
Deep down, I think Wilder believed that most of us really did look, maybe not every minute, but enough that we knew the joy and beauty and gifts of our days. Our Town, to me, is a beautifully wrought reminder not to take those days for granted. As much as I want to have an Emily moment with the home movies, I suspect that the filmmakers, almost always Art and Ellen, had a sense of the swiftness of time. That may be why they filmed so much, to slow it down and hold onto it for a just a little bit longer.
There is a film sequence of Warren learning to walk. There are short clips of him standing holding onto furniture, of him walking with the sure aid of a parent's hands, of him walking holding his father's leg. Every few seconds of film, he is a little surer and a little closer to stepping off on his own. Then suddenly there is the little toddler taking stiff, jerky baby steps, but staying upright all the way across the yard.
Art is filming that last sequence; you can just see Ellen's outstretched hand beckoning her son towards her. When I saw it, I exclaimed, "Look! There you go!" Although I knew the scene was inevitable, I was excited all the same at seeing it. For that brief moment, watching that little boy walk was our relived day, was our moment in time captured so long ago by Ellen and Art.
Warren has repeatedly said Ellen would be delighted at our watching the movies that she loved so much.
I know she is.