Keeping It Reeled? by
(55 Stories)

Prompted By First Memory

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The Reel Deal

Is it Real, or is it Memorex?*

I’m sure that among the filmed “memories” are some that I truly recall, but after so many viewings of the home movies I can’t be sure. Is it real or is it Kodachrome II?

Remember the iconic ads for cassette tape, of all things?  Ella Fitzgerald breaking a glass in a live performance recorded on Memorex tape and upon playback the recorded bit also breaks a glass?  The recording medium was of such high quality that it faithfully rendered the actual pitch and intensity of her scatting.**  Of what relevance this?  My family was big on home movies.  Birthday parties.  Christmas mornings.  Various excursions were filmed, often in color, with Dad’s 16mm camera.  Memorable moments all.  The family watched these classics dozens of times over the years; they were very familiar.  And there’s the rub: when I remember the filmed sequences, am I remembering the actual event or only the home movie of the event?

I think many of us have experienced a related phenomenon.  A friend, family member or other loved one brings up a treasured memory that he/she knows involved us but that we don’t recall.  The narrator describes the event in vivid detail – setting, action, even specific dialogue – that creates a vision in real time that recaptures the event such that we can almost feel ourselves involved, Zelig-like, in the scene.  Almost.  Our early home movies do that in spades:

The October outing when I was four or five and the family visited “Pumpkin Village” to pick out Halloween pumpkins and enjoy the fall.  The movie was in color and the bright day and angle of the sun at the time of our visit make for a most vivid visual.  I can almost feel myself there, but . . .

And countless Christmas mornings, including one where I was no more than 3, descending the stairs from the second floor in my Tartan robe, a bit groggy as I found my way down the stairs, “smoking” a small plastic replica of a briar pipe.  The excitement of the moment is almost palpable . . .

I’m sure that among the filmed “memories” are some that I truly recall, but after so many viewings of the home movies I can’t be sure.  Is it real or is it Kodachrome II?

Memory bank?

Fortunately, I do have at least two vivid memories stored only in my mental archive.  By coincidence they are similar in nature.

My story from last week’s prompt on Reconnecting, “Prompt and Circumstance”, highlighted my childhood home. Actually, that was my second childhood home, where I lived from July 1953 forward.  My true early memories are from our tenure in my first childhood home.

The house was modest, to be sure.  It was the first house my parents owned.  When Dad mustered out of the service in 1946, he had not completed his surgical residency, so money was tight early on.  By the time I was born three years later they were homeowners, courtesy of a VA loan and associated minimal down payment.  The house was on a pleasant street with concrete steps leading from the sidewalk to a short flight of wooden porch steps.

One day while playing I tripped on the sidewalk right in front of the concrete steps, fell forward, and smashed my front teeth into the edge of a concrete step. I remember falling, the step seeming to come up to meet me. Ouch.  I didn’t lose any teeth, but I certainly loosened a few.  No permanent damage, but for a few days my mom had to take me to the corner drug store to get lunches and dinners in liquid form.  Real milkshakes, the kind with ice cream, the way most of America knows them.  Poor baby.

The second memory, notably sharper, actually predates the first by a bit.  Our family went to a lake for a picnic one summer day.  Forest Lake.  We went as a group with a handful of other families.  By coincidence there is a home movie of a small portion of that day, one of my Dad swimming in the lake.  Noteworthy because Dad was the cameraman for almost all of our movies, not the “star”.  I don’t remember him swimming, but I have a sharp memory of the lake.

I was playing by the water’s edge.  Probably with a boat or similar toy.  I was wearing my “choo choo” sweater.  And I must have leaned over too far . . . Splash.  I was falling forward, just the same as the incident with the concrete steps, and the water seemed to be rising up to meet me.  Almost certainly an adult was nearby, and I was snatched from the water.  No trauma whatsoever, before or after.  Only the memory, and sensation, of the “oncoming” water.

All of our old home movies, along with a vintage 16mm projector and Dad’s original camera, are in my possession.  I’ve not looked at them in a long, long time. As the years have gone by and those films erode my actual memory of the events they’ve become just movies.  Treasured, perhaps, but just movies.  I prefer my real memories over those memory reels.

– – – –

* I thought of this before I noticed next week’s prompt.  Honest.

** Was gonna say “her scat” but realized it denoted something altogether different.

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Tom, I think your two early memories of falling (on concrete and into water) likely happened as you recall them. But I agree with your thoughts about the influence of home movies and photos in creating many of our first memories. It’s interesting to try to tease these things apart. Add to that the influence of the stories told to us by our parents. It is a confusing jumble.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Lovely, Tom. As you commented to me, great minds think alike. And as soon as I saw your first sentence, I DID think of next week’s prompt. How interesting that both those early memories are around the sensation of falling; one encountering the hard cement stairs, but the other just the splash of water. In one, there was pain (but the subsequent treat of a real milk shake), but the in the other, no harm, just the sensation, then rescue. Nice for you that memory is better than watching the movies. I still really enjoy watching my home movies, as the memory of my older relatives recedes in my mind.

    My brother has our projector and original movies. The film is now very brittle and the splices keep falling apart, so I don’t think he ever actually looks at them any longer, since they’ve been converted to other formats now.

    • Thanks, Betsy. I, too, have all of the movies. The film came in a kind of cartridge and Dad would send it off for development. Might have brought to the principal drug store downtown that was one of those all-purpose, almost general store, and they sent it to the lab. Each cartridge produced 50 feet of film, which, at 16 frames per second, meant a 150 second film. A real pain to have to thread and rewind when watching multiples. My dad sent off these “short subjects” to be spliced, 8 at a time, into longer reels that ran for 20 minutes. I have 11 of those now (which is all of them). Alas, the first of them, which is the most precious, has disintegrated (as I just discovered). Fortunately sister Suzie has a VHS of the entire set. Picture quality poor but it least they have been preserved.

  3. Marian says:

    Your story is so evocative, Tom, that I can hear the click-click of the projector as the film is viewed. It is fascinating that the vivid memories are those for which there aren’t movies. We didn’t do movies in my family, but I have a lot of still photos I need to revisit, and it will be interesting to see how they gibe with my recollections of time and place.

    • Thanks, Marian. I just commented on Barbara’s story and included an observation that perhaps our preverbal selves feel more intensely exactly because we can not yet articulate our feelings. I wonder whether seeing movies of our early years has the effect of dulling our senses – watching the movie is the easy way to “remember”.

  4. Suzy says:

    This is wonderful, Tom, both the discussion of home movies in general, and then your two specific memories that were not captured on film. I also love your two footnotes, and scrolled down to see them right away instead of waiting til the end of the story.

    My parents took lots of home movies, but I discovered when we had a marathon movie-watching session several years ago that they were all of my older sisters and cousins. None of me! So it was pretty boring for me to watch them, and I don’t have to worry about them influencing my memories.

    • Thanks, Suzy Our home movie viewings evolved. At early ages they were greatly anticipated for the content, which was typically pretty recent vis a vis the viewing. But just as I mentioned in last week’s story that the conversations around the stories are the thing, so, too, as we grew older, the commentary was the thing. One memorable example: one of the movies was of a winter weekend in the Poconos; just our parents and their close friends that went back to Dad’s college and medical school days. Dad included a pan of the horizon, and the Delaware Water Gap came into view. Over the years, as we watched the movie, my eldest sister Louise would call out, each time, “Delaware Water Gap” when it came into view. In subsequent years it became a competition to see who could see it and say it first. I still chuckle about it (and, yes you just had to be there.)

  5. Suzy says:

    P.S. I love your title too! I meant to say that about your title last week as well. I am a big fan of clever titles!

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Nothing wrong with memory prompts, film or otherwise. If nothing else, they elicit a time and place. A big challenge is keeping up with technology, which makes so much recorded information inaccessible. Sometimes old-fashioned pictures in books work best.

  7. Tom, thanx for your story of memories and home movies.

    Sadly, reels of my parents’ home movies were lost when Hurricane Sandy flooded the basement of our apartment building. Those precious reels were stored in that basement – priceless and irreplaceable! So good that your family’s are still in your possession!

  8. I agree, Tom…it’s hard to differentiate between real vs recorded memories. That said, I don’t think I could resist watching our old home movies as you have, but they’re still on reels in my brother’s garage so there’s little chance of that happening. But here’s something else (which I also mentioned in my comment to Betsy): I have found that even in writing a story about a memory, the story takes the place of the memory. When I look back at any memory I’ve written about, it’s almost as if it’s encased in a bubble with only the details I’ve included in the story. It’s as if I’m now a character in my story. I wonder if other memoirists have experienced this. Has this happened to you?

  9. If I have to pick one among many good descriptive images, I love the one of you at such a tender age coming downstairs “smoking a pipe” to find out what Santa had left for you.

    • Thanks, Dale. Funny thing: I hadn’t thought about it when I wrote that description but re “finding out what Santa brought”: the same movie shows it: it was some kind of service station/garage set up with toy cars, which the movie shows I discovered after seeming to read a card attached to the present.

  10. Tom, thanx for your story of memories and home movies.

    Sadly, reels of my parents’ home movies were lost when Hurricane Sandy flooded the basement of our apartment building.
    Those precious reels were stored in that basement – priceless and irreplaceable!
    So good that your family’s are still in your possession!

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