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Video daze


My friend Cate and I were talking the other day about how we can barely remember what we were like during the years when our children were babies. Both of us are mothers of four who had a flock of toddlers swirling around our knees about 15 years ago.

Neither of us remembers what it felt like to be 32, 33, 34, 35. We agree we remember feeling tired and frazzled, and being so busy we rarely had time to stop and enjoy the remarkable life bounding around us.

Now we are both surrounded by teenagers, and while we feel more present mentally, emotionally and physically, we are obliged to watch our kids grow into adulthood from a careful, prescribed distance. We cannot change their clothes when they need changing, distract them from boredom or sorrow or decide how they will spend their days.

Luckily, both of us have videotapes of our kids when they were tiny, chubby, cherubic and innocent, and when their lives were centered at home. Ironically, we discovered as we talked, the best recorded memories of our children's lives were documented by their fathers.

It wasn't lost on us that during the years we spent every waking -- and sleeping -- hour with our children, when our husbands were most often away from home, it was the dads who had the leisure, the focus, and the time to preserve that slice of life for the kids, and for us.

In those videotapes, hours and hours of painstakingly observed baby and toddler rituals, the mothers slip in at the seams, always rushing, hands filled, barking directions or tiredly smiling into the camera before bolting for the sink, the washing machine or the bathtub. The fathers' faces rarely appear, but their voices burble forth from behind the microphone. It is as though they came home from work and settled into a vision of the family seen clearly as it can only be when viewed through a lens. Our kids' fathers watched and recorded, with great patience, the workings of their households from the point of view of loving observers.

I have a remarkable recording of my oldest son at age three, building an intricate Lego structure, an enormous rocket ship with pieces that separate and lift off, over a period of several hours. His father lay on the floor of our family room across from him, and watched him think, recorded his satisfaction, his frustration, his steady attention and eventual triumph. In the background, I pass by and chat aimlessly at both father and son, a baby tucked under one arm, a blanket dangling from the other. Occasionally, the camera shifts to the couch where I sit nursing a baby while another hangs across my knees.

In another dramatic piece of tape, my daughter takes her father on a tour of her bedroom, pointing out to him everything that matters to her at age twelve. While we have many shots of her cooing, dancing, tickling and otherwise entertaining her baby brothers, this is the only footage dedicated to her private, solitary pre-adolescent life -- a life I almost missed except for this tape. Her father, from behind the camera, skillfully and gently urges her on, getting her to reveal more and more of herself through the contents of her room -- her bed, her radio, her stuffed panda, her cool shades, her chest of treasures.

If we could enter a video into a contest reflecting fathers' reflections of their families and the complications of family life, the most artful and abstract entry would be the tape taken by Cate's brother-in-law at a crowded family function. As she tells it, two extended families have gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of her sisters' kids. Her brother-in-law wanders through the mob and the noise, and eventually ends up on a back porch where he begins videotaping a squirrel nibbling at a nut.

A full half-hour passes while he kneels next to the squirrel, focusing on its mouth, face and hands. Kids' voices weave in and out of the background; in-laws pass through, give him a dismissive glance and re-enter the party.

Finally, his wife's voice breaks through. "Where have you been?" she asks. "We've been looking all over for you. It's time to serve the cake."

The camera stays tightly focused on the squirrel as the husband assures his wife he will be in soon. He will record the party, the blowing out of the candles, the satisfied faces of the parents and in-laws, the star-struck eyes of the cousins and sisters, the bustling of his busy wife, the kids' faces caked with icing, but first he will finish photographing the squirrel.

The nut is finally completely shelled. The squirrel pops the soft meat into its mouth, turns and runs off. From inside, a happy birthday roar. Fade to black.

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