Last Sunday, Gabrielle Baker got to work drawing up movie tickets while my husband filled red and white-striped buckets with popcorn. I headed to the basement to put the finishing touches on the “theatre,” namely displaying boxes of Sweet Tarts, Junior Mints and Swedish Fish in a bowl.
At 2 p.m., just in time for show time, in walked my in-laws — Linda and Mr. Baker; Teresa, her husband Scott, and sons Eric and Reece; and Leah and her daughter Kennedy, with husband Art missing the party for a Sunday work shift.
“Here is your ticket,” Gabrielle said excitedly. “Admit one to the movie ‘Forgotten Images.’”
The gathering was long in coming, with Mr. Baker, my father-in-law, long wishing we would get together to look at his old slides. This year, a week before Father’s Day, we decided to surprise him with the party, with Linda, my mother-in-law, sneaking out of her house last Wednesday to arrive at mine with a four-foot stack of brown slide boxes, a dusty projector and a slightly dinged screen.
After a quick meal, we headed downstairs to start the show, all of us tucked together on the couches like Smarties and me already staring longingly at the box of Junior Mints.
After the obligatory juggle to get the focus clear, the show began. As my husband William started advancing slides, the click and wheezy release of the projector brought me instantly back to my childhood.
Though I didn’t remember it until Sunday, my dad spent a considerable part of his free time with his eyes narrowed and his head cocked to the ceiling holding up a slide to the light. Then he’d drop it patiently into a slit of the black carousel and hold up the next slide, scrunching up his eyes again and angling the white-framed negative high.
As I watched Mr. Baker do the exact same thing at one point, I realized this assess-and-drop movement must have belonged to dads everywhere in the 1970s, with the technology demanding of these men the painstaking, yet somehow enjoyable, process.
Watching a slide show was always an exciting event at my house, generally accompanied by popcorn and my best friend Kristin and her parents. We’d gather in the basement and, since we didn’t have a screen, we’d position the projector on the bar and face it toward a blank wall beside the piano. Then the show would begin, filled with camping trips, smiling babies and birthday cakes.
I was especially looking forward to seeing this show, since all the photos of my husband up until the age of 10 are in slide format. After years together, I never knew what he looked like as a baby, toddler or young boy.
It turns out he wore a lot of brown. Brown pants, brown turtlenecks, brown socks, brown-striped T-shirts. This was accompanied by a mop of brown hair that hung shining down his forehead. He also smiled a lot and loved anything having to do with speed, a passion that has yet to wear off.
I soon discovered the Baker family slide show is extremely orderly, pristinely chronological, with Christmas, birthdays, vacations, Easter, blizzards and construction projects dutifully documented. In her dainty cursive, Linda even filled out the legend that comes with each carousel, listing who or what is in each slide.
Watching someone else’s childhood unfold in front of you is a fascinating opportunity. The show started in 1968 and advanced a decade. Along the way, I saw birch trees grow, hairstyles change, Linda’s macramé phase, gardens flourish, shocking wallpaper patterns, and three kids steadily growing up in 1970s Michigan.
I also saw a parade of presents: Raggedy Ann, Tinker Toys, Simon Says, Baby Alive, baby carriages, LEGO, football helmets, cowboy hats, pistols and learn-to-draw sets.
In almost each photo, the Baker kids — who are now all in their 40s — fondly pointed out the smallest details of their childhood, ones they had, yes, forgotten but had spent a lot of time considering in their youth: the orange, swan-shaped vase they broke that had been glued back together, a cheerful toaster cozy, a black recliner whose leather had split and been taped artfully back together, a nighty they especially loved.
Watching the movie from an outsider’s standpoint, it makes you realize that these tiny details are as keenly remembered as the big events — if not more so — with the Baker kids often just remembering their birthday party by the number of candles on the cake. It reminds you of how connected you are to your house when you’re a kid, in part because you’re mostly in it but also because you’re young enough to really consider and have strong attachment to objects.
And as the day clicked forward, it also makes you realize how slides were a beautiful technology, one that demanded the family gather and simply remember together. And while you chew on Swedish fish and your hands get buttery from popcorn, you realize what you’re really doing is celebrating in a comforting, authentic way.