I spent most of my childhood under the impression that my immediate family was, if not quite desperately poor, then just steps away from abject destitution Even though, we had a nice house, in an ostensibly nice neighborhood, with plenty of food and clothes and toys and vacations. Even though my parents were both employed and reasonably well-paid. Even though, all the grandparents (six, at the time, via remarriages) were all comfortable and reasonably generous with their gifts. The party line at home was that we had no money at all. We were barely getting by. My parents carped about bills and worried about the future. My mother would suggest that we might one day not have enough money to eat. My father told me I should probably get used to the idea of one day living under an overpass.
The most pervasive worry seemed to be my mother’s concern that that any day my father might quit his full-time job as Creative Director at an advertising agency, move us all into a shack on Wrightsville Beach, and write a novel, while we dug starvation rations of periwinkles and crabs out of the tidal pools. To prepare for what I believed to be an inevitability, I spent my youth reading about precipitous declines in family fortunes. I all but memorized the section of A Little Princess, in which Sara Crewe was trundled off into the garret and forced to wear last season’s black dresses and socialize with rodents. Honestly, I thought Mom’s scenario didn’t sound so bad. I liked the beach and seafood and lord, I was born ready to not live in the mountains. I wondered would I be able to swim in the ocean every day? And could we also have, like, flounder or would it just be crabs and periwinkles? what would the shack be like?
Mom would give me some long look and say, the kind of shack that doesn’t stay up during hurricane season. And then where will be? Probably the poor house
I was unclear on the Poor House, too. Was that also near Wilmington? Would it be like the Work House in “Oliver!” Would I have to wear brown in the poor house? There was a lot of brown happening in “Oliver!” I didn’t really care for brown clothes. If Dad finished his novel, would we then be able to leave the Poor House? And if it was successful maybe move to a cool, cosmopolitan city that had, like, an Orange Julius and a Benetton at the mall.
But even if Dad didn’t quit his job and make us live in a shack, evidence of my impoverished lifestyle was everywhere I turned. Our house was old and though my mother and grandmother did in their power to indoctrinate me into the cult of fragile 18th century furniture, heritage beds you absolutely cannot jump on ever, and antique Japanese porcelain I fretted endlessly about breaking, all I could see was that our house lacked a rec room with a ping pong table. We also didn’t have a trampoline or any Big Wheels. We didn’t go on family trips to theme parks or to Chuck E. Cheese. We didn’t have a minivan. Or a basketball hoop. Mom never bought Cheese Balls or Pudding Pops. It took years of begging to get a swing set. And we didn’t have a video camera at all
No video camera meant that no one could record my piano recital, or play performance or middle school slumber party lip synch contests, which meant we could never rewind to see if Susan flubbed the second verse of “You Be Illin.” It meant that within the largely white and upper middle class cohort of kids tracked through the honors program at my otherwise largely black and lower middle class middle school, I would forever be operating at a disadvantage because I was never able to film a skit for a school project the way the other kids did.
This last part was worse. It hardly seemed fair that the Triple Threats (rich, smart, athletic) easily aced projects while I struggled to get a B+ just because their parents would film their earnest reenactment of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the downstairs rec-room or direct their pyrotechnics enhanced demonstration of the Big Bang Theory on the Asheville Country Club Golf Course.
I would try to explain to Mom. In order to do well on this book report, you need to pick up four or five of my closest friends, drive us to a scenic location, costume us in period appropriate costumes, film it and then probably take us to Boston Pizza for dinner before you drop all of my friends off
My mother looked at me as if I were delusional. Didn’t I know she had to work, then sit at a city council meeting, and follow that up with a dinner part for a visiting Scandinavian urban planner. And what does a video camera have to do with a book report? This was a stupid question. You couldn’t do a clever skit about “To Kill a Mockingbird” without film and you couldn’t film it without a video camera. It was no use for her to try and belabor the point by suggesting I do something so outré as WRITE a book report. For the love of God, I was in the Gifted Classes. A simple paper would never pass muster, not when the Triple Threats were collaborating with Duke students they met at a summer program to clone Boo Radley using a chemistry set, some Sea Monkey eggs, and a shortwave kit they brought home from Space Camp. My seventh grade English teacher already didn’t like me, and as she liked to remind me, I was never going to get into college, let alone Harvard, if I didn’t step up my game. And my game required, at minimum, a video camera. ANY video camera. Even one that only took Betamax tapes like the Murphys had.
Mom would listen, patiently, give me a long slow look and suggest that I talk to Dad. Which meant I’d end up wandering through his creative department on the weekend sans camera, seeking out the tools to elevate my poster board projects and dumb haikus, (in the pre-computerized days of the advertising industry, this mostly meant magic markers and a potentially brain-damaging fog of Spray-Mount). I’d come out with maybe a B+
And it wasn’t just school. I worried about the future. I worried we will have nothing to prove our existence to future generations if there is no video of my 11th birthday party at Pizza Hut, but the parents would point out (correctly) that we had an embarrassment of snapshots. Dad was an enthusiastic and talented amateur photographer, even if his go-to photo of me always captured me from all the worst angles, slumped and highly-double chinned, staring moodily off into the great beyond, probably wondering why Wrightsville Beach? Why not Topsail? Why not Emerald Isle?
Of course, the shack thing never happened. Neither did the video camera. However, there two times in which my mother drove up to Videoland and rented a camera for the evening and I had a sliver of filmed childhood.
The first of these was a full-album’s length sing-along and dance revue to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack. I was eleven; my sister was six. I imagined myself in possession of Broadway-level vocal chops and jaw-dropping dance moves, ala “Fame” and “Flashdance.” I’d also recently come into possession of a head-to-toe Esprit ensemble of lavender jersey in various patterns (polka dots, stripes, etc.), which I thought made me look like a real talent. My sister had coincidentally developed a deep-seated love of denim mini-skirts, sheer knee-high stockings, and plastic bangle bracelets. She availed herself of roughly half the contents of a blue eyeshadow contact, found in the depths of mom’s dressing table, and tied a bandana at garter height on her thigh.
As farce, the “Dirty Dancing” revue was an unqualified success. What my careful choreography lacked in technique and physical prowess, it more than made up for in extensive, mishandled props and gratuitous (if unintentional) flashes of my underwear . My sister positioned herself about two feet away from the camera. She swayed and gyrated and slunk about living room like an alcoholic stripper, occasionally thwacking herself in the head with her own hand in the heat of passion. Between my panties and her sexy dance, the end result is both hilarious, and slightly uncomfortable. Caddy Compson meets Dolores Haze meets “Dance Fever” with dance moves cribbed from “Jane Fonda’s New Workout.”
At the time, however, I thought it was a miserable failure, spoiled by my sister’s relentless camera hogging and my horror at how fat I looked on camera. We hid it away in a drawer with movies we taped off HBO but would never watch again (“White Nights?”). I rediscovered it about fifteen years ago, after my sister revealed it had been popular favorite in her college dorm room. She’d secreted it away in her early adolescence, fearing it would disappear into a junk drawer and subsequently become junk. I have it now, stored in a filing cabinet. Because I think I’m the only member of the family to still own a VHS player (albeit collecting dust in a closet).
What’s particularly funny is that “Dirty Dancing” is not even our favorite home video. That would be the second, and the only time my plea for a filmed school project ever hit the mark. I don’t know why I chose to deliver a lecture on Einstein’s theory of relativity fake-crying in a terrible German accent, wearing a head scarf and a nightgown, with a pillow underneath to simulate pregnancy, but I did. I might have had something to do with the fact that I was trying to show off by giving a nod to Brecht, a nod, I might add, lost entirely on my eighth grade General Science teacher. (I think you can do better, Alison. You’re a bright student, but you don’t go the distance. I mean look at that video the Triple Threats brought of their combined family trip to the particle accelerator and the two dozed, red velvet electron cupcakes they brought to share with the class. That’s the kind of quality work I expect from a student in the Gifted Program. B-)
Afterwards there was still plenty of battery left and room on the tape, so my Dad filmed my little sister, then eight, as she tried to hawk the baby bunnies her pet rabbits would not actually end up having. She was the consummate saleswoman, still over-accessorized and blue eyeshadowed, and wearing a Meet Me at the Mall t-shirt, just so you’d know it was still 1989. Afterwards, my father talked to the dog for a while from behind the camera, in a kind of congenial drawling monologue hey girl, hey buddy, hey are you my buddy, yeah, you’re my buddy my sister and I can (and will) recite verbatim
The last half-hour is made up of a walk down to the lake in my childhood neighborhood. My mother forgot the camera was on, so all our progress is recorded in nausea-inducing detail, as well as a scene when my sister ran into the meadow past the boathouse on the edge of Beaver Lake, and then, reported to the camera: “I’m Sara, and I love to run” while my mother and I quibbled gently over dinner plans. I wanted tacos. Mom wanted spaghetti.
My sister and I watched that video obsessively after the fact, maybe because it funny, but maybe also because it was shot about a month before my parents announced their divorce, about two months before my father moved out of the house, about three months before my grandfather died, and about a year and half before we moved out of that house, and set in motion a series of events I couldn’t have possible predicted as I walked back from Beaver Lake and turned up my nose at the suggestion of pasta for dinner. I don’t know what happened to that tape. Somehow it fell through the cracks. It disappeared.
My family acted well in front of a camera because it was rare for us to have one. Sometimes I still wish we had a few more films. Other people can reminisce with sound and pictures. They can sit back and watch their hyperactive holiday mornings and senile grandmothers on holiday. My friends can’t imagine my parents being married, or our house on Westwood Road. I still lack the language to give them a solid picture of what it was like there on the good nights, with the four of us together, when my parents still seemed to be totally in love with each other, even if they were complaining about money or envisioning romantic penury on the North Carolina coast in the service of the novel that never did get written.
It was only ever an illusion, and I know that. But it was a really good one.
 He didn’t
 She totally did.
 Obvious hyperbole. But barely.
©2018 Alison Fields and TinyCommotions.com.: