Tonight at Dad's

Patti See

My seven siblings and I meet at our parent’s house to prep a photo board for Mom’s funeral tomorrow.

After supper, my brother David brings out old home movies that he has recently transferred from VHS to DVD, back then a little like converting a walkie-talkie into a smartphone. We gather in the living room and watch 14 years into the past as our parents open gifts at their 50th wedding anniversary.

Mom’s voice is almost shrill, or it seems so to me now. Alzheimer’s silenced her. After my parents open their gifts, Mom forces her large foot into the tiny wedding shoes she wore in 1948 when she was 18. Behind them hang her wedding dress and Dad’s suit, which David suspended from the ceiling as decorations.

“I’m Cinda –” Mom says on the video. She can’t quite get the words out over her laughter. “Cinda …” she tries to say – “rella.” She laughs some more.

Tonight at Dad’s we all sit here transfixed by Mom on the screen. She hadn’t been able to sit up or smile for months before she died; she didn’t know any of us kids for years.

Dad says now, “I must have had a cold.” He’s in his lift chair, an oversized recliner with an electric motor that allows 86-year-old-him to easily get out of it; I’m sitting on the floor at his feet because we’ve got 20 family members packed into this small living room to watch David’s videos.

“You were crying,” I say over my shoulder. We all watch him on the screen, as he hands his tissue to Mom. She takes off her glasses and wipes her eyes. She’s crying from laughing so hard; he’s crying because he is what Mom always called a “softie.” I don’t have to look behind me right now to know he’s leaking tears again.

Sometimes home videos capture ordinary moments or milestones, all of which were meant to be viewed at a future date. Sometimes they are love letters from the past, opened when we most need them.

The next video shows Christmas Eve at David’s house. Our parents are there, delivering their traditional red garbage bag full of gifts to his four little ones. David’s youngest unwraps a “jogging suit” from his grandparents, then strips to his socks and underwear and puts on his new clothes.

We roar with laughter tonight at Dad’s, but the people in the video don’t even seem to notice Evin taking off all of his clothes and silently slipping on another outfit. 

Evin runs a wide lap around the room as David records, Evin’s 4-year-old body blurring out of the frame and then back in.

“Dad,” Evin yells, “Dad: I got a jogging suit, so I’m jogging.”

My mom tells Evin’s brother to stop it when he tries to interrupt Evin’s jog. Her sharp tone is one my siblings and I all recognize. We sit together in Dad’s living room, while our mother is being prepared at the funeral home three miles away, and each of us does an impression of Mom’s other go-to phrases. Shame on you. Is that what you learned in school. Son of a buck.

Tomorrow we’ll see Mom for the last time, in her casket. Tonight we watch her on the TV screen because of a treasure David brought for us in his coat pocket. I’m not sad, tonight at Dad’s, where thoughts of “personal space” disintegrate when we all pack in.

Sometimes on Christmas, all these bodies make the house feel claustrophobic and the warm air so thick we open the front and back doors. Tonight it feels good, close, just what I need.

I sit on the carpeted floor with my nieces, all in their 20s, though on the screen they are little girls in bib overalls and big glasses. Four of my sisters squeeze onto Dad’s couch. Another leans against a paneled wall. Guys stand around tonight at Dad’s – one hand in a jeans pocket, one hand wrapped around a beer – just like they do in the video.

Patti See is a frequent contributor to Wisconsin Life and Volume One.