I Believe in Watching Slides

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First there’s a hushed suggestion. Then, the grandchildren start to whine. As my mother tries to calm everyone, my dad puts down the paper and issues the decree. We hold our breaths, fingers crossed.

“Okay then. Somebody get the screen,” my dad says. A cheer goes up. We’re going to watch slides! My family has raised watching slides to an art form. In the dark living room, crammed together in front of the dinky pull-up screen, magic happens. Seventeen of us try to see who wore the dorkiest clothes, who had the cutest smiles. The competition for clever remarks is fierce. The laughter is real and heartfelt.

New boyfriends and girlfriends learn about us in a trial-by-fire. Even our foreign exchange student was inducted this way. Anneli was always worried about the focus of the slides. We remember her by calling out with glee, “Can you focus that?” It’s a party.

On the screen, we flip past George and Phil, my father’s best friends from college. They prompted shenanigans that are hard to attach to our responsible dad. Then there’s my grandmother, who joined the legislature, our great grandfather building the breakwater, and a picture that prompts the story of how my brothers tried to drown me as a baby! We feel a pang as my Aunt Evie appears, vibrant and adventurous long before Alzheimer’s would silence her.

Other things stand out, too. My parents’ time for us was nearly limitless. Their love for each other is in my mom’s face and in my father’s capture of her in slide after slide. To our surprise, his long-standing boast is absolutely true: my mother at 25 did look just like Elizabeth Taylor. We see our own teenage years go by, too, with sympathy and gentle hearts for our gawky past selves. Our children think to themselves that perhaps we are not so clueless after all.

Slideshows are our campfire. It’s our oral history. I’ve been digitizing the collection recently, which makes me think about our tradition. I call to my sons, “Come see! It’s Grammy at Grampa’s graduation!” I tell them how my mom was so proud because my dad was first in his class – the picture shows a long ant like line, and from an impossibly distant bleacher seat, we see my dad, carrying the flag for engineering. My son finishes the graduation story for me, with me.

But digital images aren’t the same as using the projector, which smells hot to tell us when it’s time to stop. Digital images don’t jam, allowing dashes to the kitchen for more food. They don’t create that distinctive slide/snap/turn metallic song as dad patiently talks us through what makes us a family. The babies don’t stagger around to make shadows as we finish.

We like the time it takes to watch and listen, tucked together like sardines. While I’m happy to digitize the pictures to preserve our stories, I believe in watching slides.

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