Preserve the past while it is still possible

The summer of 1984 wasn't the happiest of times for me. I was 9, had just finished 3rd grade and would be moving, along with my brother, to live in Madison Wisconsin with my father and stepmother. My grandfather, a man everyone loved and admired, had died of cancer that winter. We lived in the basement of the home he and my grandmother had built some 20 years earlier. Grandpa Harley was beyond important to me. He had a bigger than life persona that I ate up. We would spend hours together building things in his garage or with me sitting on his lap "helping" with his crossword puzzle. I missed him. My parents divorce a few years earlier was also something that weighed on me. Oh, and to top it all off I had psoriasis covering large areas of my little body. It sucked. But I don't look back at that time with anything but fond appreciation. I loved my family. Harley dying of cancer brought all of our family around more often. It's a sad truth that his dying couldn't register with my nine year old self the way it may today. At nine I didn't know I would miss him so much and for the rest of my life. I didn't know then that I would miss everyone I'd eventually lose, even those who didn't die but simply moved on and lost touch. I can't help the fact that I basically love everyone.


A few months ago I received a box from my mother. The box had all sorts of junk in it, from cards and coins, to pencils with my school's name printed on them. But of course it held a couple of little treasures. The red and white patch from my break out and only year with the Three River Soccer Association was an instant winner. It will find its way onto one of my canoeing packs soon. There was also a developed reel of 8mm film that bore a child's handwritten note of "Kris and Sam". I assumed it was my older brother Chris and I on that film. So I took the reel to Saving Tape in Minneapolis. They are experts and recovering the fading and deteriorating bits of memory left over from our analog past. The Kodachrome slides of family events nearly forgotten, and the Maxell tapes we used to record messages that would be sent via post. If it isn't already gone, they can save it and give a fighting chance in the digital age. Well, yesterday I got my little digitized memory back. 


There I am in 1984. I'm playing in the front yard of my beloved grandparents home. Everything is as I remember it. The cottonwood tree my grandmother insists she planted as just a broken stick she had found severed from some distant parent tree. The small village resembling a town from the depression era memory of my grandfather Harley. He had the fanciful idea of recreating the small farming town our growing little city had once been. And there were my cousins. My older brother and I playing with the cousins who made that year bearable. My cousin Bret, who I thought walked on water. My cousins Debby, Pooh and Becky. Clearly a kid had been put behind the lens, as the camera rarely stayed still for a moment. But amidst the jerking and quick cuts, a story came together. There was a narrative to the four minute video. The camera and the troop of cousins made their way through all of our favorite places to play. We visited the landmarks important to us. My aunt and uncle lived next door and between them and my grandparents owned probably 40 acres. My three girl cousins, each one of them my eternal favorite (but don't tell the others!), had a little play set and sort of tragically awesome set of degrading household items that lived in a special area on the edge of the treeline. At one point we are swinging and the next we are rolling around on the ground laughing. While watching this I am getting an emotional charge. This is a goodbye video. We are all saying goodbye to the places we'd played for the year we lived in close proximity to each other. My cousins are saying goodbye to us and us to them. At the end of the movie, I am holding a sign someone had handwritten. It says something like "Goodbye Chris and Sam, we love you". 


1984 wasn't exactly a bad year, it was a year full of lessons to be learned. Learning lessons is by necessity difficult. I don't see my cousins or their children as often as I might like, but we are still close. I still miss my grandparents. My psoriasis taught me lessons about true friendship. Some kids looked past it and some simply couldn't. Some were even cruel about my disfigured skin. But I lived. My cousin Bret is still cool in the weirdest of ways. He was the only fan of a series of videos I made that featured nothing more than me performing construction tasks for long periods of time without dialogue or plot. He was actually a super fan and still requests I that I make new episodes. 


That four minutes of 8mm video from a tumultuous period of my youth showed the love my family had for each other. In the movie we travel the worn land, marked by generations of work and toil. I'd love to have a movie of Harley and Margaret. I'd love to hear their voices tell a familiar story. Each year after 1984 brought new lessons and incremental changes in our world. I now have a cell phone in my hand that takes shake-free videos and gorgeous photos. I typed this story on it. I can visit my grandparents' home and it's unique geography via satellite imagery, right here on this phone! A lot has changed. Watching my little "goodbye Chris and Sam" video made one thing very clear...some things haven't changed. Preservation of certain memories is a hugely powerful and uniquely human thing to do.


Sam Devine