Scattered Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind by Sharon O’Donnell

As Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been going through the old 8mm films and VHS tapes that my dad has taken of family and friends over the years. We are so blessed that he was ahead of the game when he bought that 8mm camera with the big bright lights on it so many years ago (I guess in the 1950s). With that camera, he captured the smiles, faces, and yes, even the dance moves of relatives and friends who’ve since passed away. And of those who have simply gotten older and might have forgotten those long-ago images. It is indeed bittersweet to look at these films of days gone by. They are definitely priceless. My father didn’t know at the time he was taking those pictures what a gift he was giving his children and grandchildren that would continue to give decades later. Or maybe he did.

These faces and memories show my children where they came from, who they came from. These films and videos literally bring to life the great aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents that my kids have only heard about. There are some with voices and those older ones on film without the voices. But each of them speaks loud and clear:  I was here and I lived and I loved, and these smiles and these hugs and these celebrations are what helped make our family into what it is and you into what you are.

My parents are both 93 now and in relatively good health, although my mother has macular degeneration so she can’t see well, and my father has a lot of hip and leg pain that prevents him from getting around like he used to. His memory is also slipping, and sometimes the names of beloved relatives are hard for him to recall and the details of stories he once knew so well sometimes become blurred. But with these films, they are all right there before us. The old films move so fast that is difficult to keep up and to identify the faces, but somehow it makes it even more poignant, as if the faces go by as quickly as time itself. The voices in the VHS videos provide the sound that is so lacking and so desired in the 8mm films. The lack of sound makes the old film seem even that much more fleeting it seems; even though it’s frustrating not to hear the voices, it is quite fitting.

My father has helped in painting the portrait of our family — the first steps, the weddings, the proms, and even the routine things that weren’t special then but now looking back, those routine things are the most beautiful because they were such a staple of day to day life: my mother cooking at the stove, my father mowing the grass or walking to his shop, my grandmother walking to the mailbox, the family getting in the car to go to church. The routine things that we took for granted and perhaps didn’t notice suddenly becomes the stuff of poets as we realize how much we miss those routine things and what a part of our past they were.

So even though my mother cannot see the films well, and my father might not remember the names and moments the way he used to, we will sit and watch some of these together in the next week. A celebration not just of my father but of the road that each of us has traveled- and that my daddy was wise enough to capture some of it along the way.

Still shot of my parents going to church on Easter Sunday, 1963

My father in the middle between two of his six brothers dancing at a family Christmas get-together (he also had five sisters).

Daddy holding me at the beach. Blurry but it’s hard to do a still shot of film that moves that fast. Part of its allure, I think.

My father’s parents coming out of church.

Daddy’s other brothers doing the dance too.

My mother, Wiloree, with her parents, Pat and Hattie.

That’s my sisters and me on Easter, 1963. I’m the one in the middle. Mary on the left and Gail on the right (as you are looking at photo).


My sister Gail and my brother, Sam (Sammy), holding me when I was a baby.

Mama holding me. I love her expression as if all the hopes and dreams she has for my future are written on her face.

Still shot of my best friend Tina and me as we grin for the camera even though the lights of that camera were bright! Circa 1965 or ’66





Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  1. One Response to “Scattered Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind by Sharon O’Donnell”

  2. I’m thinking of all those moments as a kid when I roll my eyes at my dad pointing his camera at us yet again, and contrasting it against the poignancy of your description of your father documenting your family. A moving essay, honoring your dad.

    By Colleen on Jun 16, 2018