Remembrance of Things Past

Why a little bit of reminiscing about family, friends—and life in general—at holiday time isn’t such a bad thing.

December 2011

I am not a sentimental person. I’ve never watched my wedding video, I don’t have any family heirlooms from my long-dead grandparents, and it would take decades before I missed my one box of childhood stuff.

Perhaps this is wrong, shortsighted, or hard-hearted. Maybe this tendency is common; maybe it’s unusual. Perhaps there’s something to shelves full of boxes, and boxes full of stuff. But the past has never been much of my present. The present is my present, and it’s pretty darn full. So good or bad, right or wrong, and whatever the underlying psychology, I will admit to eschewing sentimental doodads in favor of a clutter-free life. And I will also admit to not enjoying reminiscing in favor of exploring the now. Emerson, I tend to think, had it right: “With the past, I have nothing to do, nor with the future. I live now.”

That changed as this holiday season approached. In a fit of further simplifying the clutter in my house, I came across old videotapes from a time when my children were toddling around in diapers and singing their ABCs in random and incomplete order. Out of a sense of duty, I dropped the tapes off at a shop to see if they could be salvaged, and, if so, if they could be transferred to a DVD.

The VHS tapes were successfully converted to pixels, and I brought them home, and then they sat around, unwatched, for a long time—until one recent night when the homework was done, the chickens were put in, the laundry was folded, the papers were graded, the novels had been read, the day’s tales had been told, and the dishwasher was running peacefully. On top of this serendipitous timing, something else was floating in the air, something about the holidays and nostalgia and sentimental sweetness. And I thought, Oh, what the hell. Let’s watch these babies.

My two kids and husband (who, if it is possible, is even more unsentimental than I) and golden retriever and cockatiel gathered around the TV in the back room of the house, where we keep our television. There was a lot of squirming, because the couch is uncomfortable and doesn’t fit us all. Someone had to get a snack, and someone else had to go to the bathroom. Finally, though, we hit play.

What was this, all of a sudden, on the small screen? My daughter twirling around in some ridiculous self-created outfit involving cowboy boots and a tiara, dancing and then stabbing her brother with a plastic sword. And my son, age four, looking into the camera with calm eyes and stating, “I will always help animals. And people. OK?” And our old dog, now dead, trotting about. And my husband, fixing the tire swing, and then fixing it again. And the younger versions of my siblings and parents at various holidays, arguing about the same things they still argue about, but with less gray hair. And me, putting ornaments on the Christmas tree, very much in the present of that particular moment, unaware that I was being videoed, and unaware that a future me in her own present moment would be watching.