Documentary Evidence by Shane Borrowman
January 22, 2014
Posted By: Shaunescy
My twins are eight, and they love to watch “old” videos of themselves, especially those videos taken when they were two or three years old. We have a lot of these. Boxes full. Maybe six months before they were born, I bought a video camera, one of those that records directly onto a mini-DVD.
I filmed enough random life—my pregnant wife sitting in a rocking chair, the dog playing with a soccer ball—that I knew how to work most of the buttons and had a general sense of how long the batteries lasted. Then I never touched it again until the night the kids were born—filming their tiny bodies as they lay in the neo-natal intensive care (a mandatory precaution, given that they were premature). Their health was never really a problem, and they improved daily for the month of their stay in the NICU.
I don’t think I ever put the camera down, not while they were in the hospital, not when they came home, not for the next four years or so. I filmed everything. I filmed them eating and playing, slapping each other and snuggling with each other, fighting over possession of a white and red rocking horse and sharing a bottle of milk as they sat hidden in a bottom cupboard. (That particular hiding spot never worked well: They threw plastic containers everywhere in order to make room for themselves, giggled constantly when they thought someone was looking for them, and always opened the door a crack to peek out. I pretended, consistently, to be the worst, most oblivious “It” to ever play hide and seek, however, so it all worked out.)
So the kids love to watch these mini-DVDs, and I’m happy to watch them, too. They don’t make me cry or make me nostalgic, but they do remind me just how bad my memory is. A lot of their early life seems like it happened when I wasn’t paying attention, even though I’m there in virtually every frame. I was writing a lot, teaching a lot, and speaking at a lot of conferences. I was always there, basically, but I just, well, wasn’t always present.
I remember how much my daughter, still an infant, loved it when I’d lay on my back, lift her straight up, and blow on her belly through her t-shirt. She’d thrash, giggle, and squirm back into position so I could tickle her again. I remember that so well I can still feel her weight in my left forearm, feel the cotton shirt under my hand, smell the baby powder.
I don’t think I would remember this if I didn’t see it on the DVDs over and over again.
Same thing with my son’s ritual greeting whenever I would come home from teaching a night class: We would stand at opposite sides of the coffee table (me on my knees, him atop his quivering legs). He’d let out a bellowing sort of grunt. I’d return the sound with a slightly different inflection. He’d grunt or holler or whatever, maybe slapping the table for emphasis. I’d do almost the same back to him. We’d verbally volley until he dissolved into laughter. I’d forgotten this ever happened. Ever. Until we watched the disc not long after Christmas.
John and Sam have a childhood, especially an early childhood, that’s well documented. Aside from the video, there are pictures, of course. Endless pictures. Literally thousands of digital pictures. Only a few hundred (maybe) have been printed, though, which sometimes worries me. Nothing’s worse for the storage of information than a shift in technology, and if the PC someday stops recognizing .jpg files, I’m in real trouble. And the secondary evidence is staggering—the school records, medical records, certificates of achievement, etc., etc., and so forth. It makes me realize how little of my own past exists.
Until I had twins, the only video of me that existed, as far as I know, would be random party footage from college—the sort of “Chug! Chug! Chug!” footage that isn’t even worth raising an eyebrow over, now that every phone can instantly post HD video to Facebook. I have a range of pictures of myself, but there aren’t that many from when I was very young. Some. Just not many.
And when it comes to infant pictures, I’d be shocked if I have more than a dozen different images (most of them with me in the background, rather than pictures “of” me). It has nothing to do with my family dynamic. Pictures just weren’t taken as much when a roll of film (maybe big enough to hold two dozen separate images) had to be loaded, flash cubes had to be carried and attached to the camera, and then the film had to be taken to a place like Osco Drug to be developed (for several dollars per roll, if I’m remembering my 1970s and 1980s pricing). It was enough of a bother that one picture was enough: Pose the family. Snap. On to something else.
Now I take ten or fifteen shots every time the kids put on a costume, get on a stage, or hold a microphone. Why not? There’s almost no effort involved, other than charging my phone and infrequently emptying my memory card. Of course, I rarely remember to do either. “Almost no effort” is, after all, not the same as “no effort.”
Go back a generation, and there are even fewer pictures of my parents. I have less than a shoebox full, I’d guess, if I dumped them all together (and didn’t include the hundreds I could print of them holding my kids…). There are occasional pictures of my grandparents and great grandparents, but it’s generally a sort of Kodak desert when I look for them in my albums—and worse when I look beyond them.
Ironically—or maybe predictably—these are the relatives I tell John and Sam about the most. John Borrowman, Pearl Harbor survivor who sent his full pay home to his parents throughout the entire war (and then did the same for his wife when he was called back to fight in Korea). Why not? He could support himself perfectly well with his poker winnings. Jay and Jack, veterans of the airborne invasion of Normandy. June, who always told me about the turtle he owned in the 1920s (that he had to rescue from the neighbors on more than one occasion, neighbors always bent on opening that pet with a rock). Bob, who taught me to make mud pies and rock soup. Alice, who helped me scare a cousin so bad it took him years to truly forgive me, and he’s never forgotten. Nick, Alice’s husband, who would ask me obvious questions about American history and then rave about my intelligence.
The list goes on, forever, almost, to include cousins and old neighbors and a host of friends and acquaintances and people I shouldn’t remember but do. Occasionally, I’ll have a picture to support the narrative. Usually, there’s nothing but the narrative arc itself—heavy on setting and character development, sometimes light on plot. When things really turned interesting, I’ll have a newspaper story or prison record to help tell the tale. Most of those stories—those of crime and punishment—aren’t quite eight-year-old appropriate.
I do what I can to remember all of it, all of them, and I share it with my twins. There’s no record, sometimes, beyond my own faded and faulty recollections. But I do what I can. It’s important.
With Love, Dad
Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western. He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films. He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.