A gift from the past

It was Christmas of 1991 and my father was in St. Vincent’s Hospital diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My daughter Stephanie who was at NYU film school at the time was charged with helping clean out his apartment. As luck would have it, she found a wooden box full of super-8 films that he had shot of my mother (who would tragically be gone at 38) leaving my uncles, aunts and grandfather in Brooklyn, NY.

The films also cut to New Dorp Staten Island after WWII when I was a boy of seven or eight. In Steph’s film wisdom, she had all the reels transferred to a three-quarter inch cassette, which could be played in one of the three-quarter inch machines, the size of a laser printer. I used it originally to view my commercials which, before the digital age, went onto three-quarter inch cassettes. Her find and edit was a wonderful gift for me.

In it, were scenes of my long-ago gone mother, aunts, uncles, and maternal grandfather. A few days ago, doing a pre-spring cleaning, an old box TV of ours was replaced by a flat screen, and out the door as well went the large three-quarter-inch player. I also found the large cassette that held the super-8 films my daughter had transferred the films to in 1991. I remembered originally looking at them with tears in my eyes on Christmas day of 1991. I had taken my father home from St. Vincent’s hospital for a Christmas dinner (and viewing of his old films). As it turned out, the films seemed like a blank to him. He was lost in the past, not aware that he was the sole creator of the film, which became a reel of tape, a collection of ghosts.

My penchant for nostalgia led to research 8 mm film-to-tape services on Google. I found the name of a place, Rainbow Films, and its accommodating owner. I explained the three-quarter inch had all these films of family occasions on them, of people all gone, lost in time like my dad and mom. And I just wanted a chance to see them as they were in the late 1940s, after the war. He said “no problem, bring them in today. I’ll have them done by tomorrow.” I was floored, no, mystified by the technology and prospect of allowing me a look into eternity, which ended up on a thin compact DVD and played on the big flat screen TV. I took my youngest son, Michael, with me, to 805 8th Avenue to the 25th floor to enter the tiny Rainbow studio, and to pick them up a day later.

I asked if I could see the finished work. A very nice technician, like a magician, had produced one standard DVD from the large three-quarter inch cassette. He put the DVD on a viewing screen. As it started, there was a lot of what looked like gray white mist, then slowly it turned into Niagara Falls with the “Maid of the Mist” that sailed precariously in the rapids below; and lo and behold, there was my mother and Aunt Millie in yellow slickers. I remembered it was a vacation trip we had taken. On this day, I was left back to focus on the boat in my yellow slicker. I didn’t really want to go bouncing around the falls. I was happy to be a viewer from afar.

Abruptly, the tape cut to another scene that contained my Confirmation at St. Mary’s Church on Leonard Street in Brooklyn. I was in a wide line of kids my age all dressed in red graduating robes. And there I was, smiling peanut, white armband on my shoulder. And next to me was my uncle, Dominic, who volunteered to be my godfather. He was a wide girthed man, with rimless spectacles. He had worked as a car mechanic for years, and then was let go.

He then went to work for the Department of Sanitation, lifting and hauling the big cans of garbage, which destroyed his back, but he was stoic. He turned to the local bar for relief, which did not make my aunt, Fanny, too happy. But in this scene he gave me a ring with a tiny fleck of diamond and ruby in a gold setting. I loved it. I loved him. He also bought me my first pair of roller skates, with iron ball-bearing wheels and clamps you tightened with a skate key over your shoes. And there I was smiling, happy as a clam. And there my mother was in a fur jacket and my aunt was in one, too. My father owned a glove factory. Though business had been hurt by letting in European and Asian imports, he still had the big black shiny Buick Roadmaster sitting near the curb and me in the front passenger seat, door open, a bit of a show-off.

I should mention I was an only child, indulged somewhat by my aunts, uncles and parents. I was showered with gifts at holidays and birthdays, including an accordion on my 10th birthday. Then there was a shot of the Russo family, my best friend CheChe Russo, short for Ciro. “Chich,” as I called him, was like a big brother to me, a year or two older and ready to defend the little prince against all comers. I felt like I was part of the Russo family.

John, you could see, was very proud of his family, smiling, a big man, who worked as a token taker in the subway and had a fruit stand on the side, which helped him move out of CheChe’s grandparents’ house to Forest Hills and his own house.

In a few years, I would lose track of them all, because we remained in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the film cut to Sheepshead Bay. My dad was horsing around, lifting me as if to toss me in. And there he was with his handsome face that someone else must have filmed. He looked like Rossano Brazzi, the Italian film actor. Yes, this was a great day. We would go to Lundy’s for seafood in Sheepshead Bay. Then the film cut suddenly to a lane in New Dorp, Staten Island, and me pedaling a little blond girl on a three wheeler, who I was sweet on and she on me. The lane was narrow, lined with bungalows that Hurricane Sandy one day would eat for lunch.

There were canvas awning striped chairs on the beach, and skinny me sat in one and my mother was sitting in another. She was beautiful, as was my aunt, Millie, perhaps a rival for my dad’s attention, being his secretary in his glove factory. But they were all lovely, even the nuns herding us out of church onto the sidewalk. And even the bishop with his stately hat, who questioned you on your catechism in order to qualify both for Holy Communion and Confirmation.

And suddenly, there was a scene at Reis Park, in Long Island, my mom and Aunt Milly eating soft ice cream as a strong wind blew it almost out of their mouths. I sat in the front passenger seat of the car, the door open playing with a small plastic station wagon, not realizing as a man I’d own three of them (not all at once but through my years). We cut back to the other beach scene, Boehm’s beach in New Dorp.

Then the film cut back to 282 Leonard Street, my grandfather Raphael’s house (rented apartment) in Williamsburg. And there he was in his gray double-breasted suit and vest, his fedora with the brim turned up all around. He looked like his Mulberry Street friends but happy as I ever remembered him. He flashed a great big smile at me and tears came to my eyes. It was as if happy I was alive. Aunt Fanny (Dom’s wife) and Uncle Tony were sitting on the windowsill waving and smiling at us.

“That’s my grandfather,” I said to the technician. “Look at him. He looks like he’s from the ‘Godfather.’ He was. Tears came to my eyes and I apologized to the technician for losing it. He said understandingly, “No problem.”

There were also lots of shots of Josephine and myself standing side by side, the same exact height, the perfect couple to be (if fate would approve). I could watch these moments forever. I was euphoric. When the technician handed me back the giant three quarter inch tape and a small DVD in a plastic case, I couldn’t believe it. That evening I asked my wife to take a look at it, along with my son. And I felt the same emotions.

The transfer was worth the fifty dollars it cost. It was priceless to me. Why had I waited so long to do this? Why had I left these ghosts waiting to see me? This was my flesh and blood now gone—from dust to dust. Do you understand me out there, reader? Have you those gone loved ones whose memories are always with you?

I am still reeling from it. And then I saw that scene of the skinny, smiling kid who jumped back in the water and swam a few feet out, my wife told me, “You look just like Joey the way you swam.” Joey is my daughter Stephanie’s 5-year-old boy. The circle, the karma of life goes around and around and it is so beautiful in this pullback from the noisy, overbuilt present, which we entered as we left the Rainbow Studios, the noisy subway, the rushing crowds, the police, the fire engine sirens, the conductors’ voices.

The huge Om of the universe hummed behind it all, this endless life, this precious gift in my hand. I landed back in the reality of 1991, the family gathered around the table. I asked my father if he liked his gift. He looked in space for a minute and said. “You advertising guys, I know you, you’re getting commissions on my money.” A silence fell on the table.

Stephanie said, “It’s time to get back to the hospital, Grandpa.” And I bit my lip. “Yeah, Pop, I only have you till three o’clock. It’s four now. Let’s go. I’ll get your coat.”

“But why do I have to go there. That’s not my house.”

Angering I said, “Well it is now. I’ll get the car (a Taurus station wagon).” As I walked him back to his ward, I realized there were real tears in my eyes. This I realized was the other side of memory’s sword. It hurt. But I got the ghosts of my family back and with my son. I got to see Christmas 1991 and 1947 and all they held, for better or worse. Just like life.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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5 Responses to A gift from the past

  1. Great story.


  2. Re RAY: Thanks. And thanks to Bev, that great editor, who gave me the leeway to do this piece.
    Jerry Mazza,
    Associate Editor.

  3. -
    yes jerry,
    very poignant
    thank you, for that

    just today on npr, i heard a story
    it was about how we die three deaths

    the first is physical, the second spiritual [?]
    and the third, in the memory of those left behind

    the premise was, there is a waiting room
    where we wait as long as we are remembered

    when the last person that knew of, or speaks of us, dies
    we are released from the room, to go on ahead, forever alone [all one]

    i have paraphrased a bit but this strikes me as true
    let’s hope your kids and their kids,
    never forget

    and you, my friend, will be stuck in that
    room for a long, long time

  4. RE: est. Thanks. I hope they remember too.

  5. Wow Jerry. What a gift you received. Enviable. What I would give to have something like that showing my young life with family. Hope I will be able to see your film in the near future. Very moving! Vic