We hadn't looked at them for years, these grainy videotapes of my daughters' early years. But last week--on the day the eldest of my three daughters turned 17--we all wound up on the couch in front of the TV, watching chronicles of the girls they used to be.
On the screen was another birthday celebration. Their dad was wielding the video camera as I frosted a homemade cake, amid the chaos that was our life in those days. The baby was propped up in a walker, wailing at her lack of mobility. The 2-year-old kept climbing onto the counter, knocking over cups and smearing her face with frosting.
And the 6-year-old birthday girl was singing to herself while counting out the candles for her cake. "Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen." She giggled. "Seventeen, Mommy." She beamed into the camera, with a snaggle-toothed smile and shining brown eyes. "Today's my birthday and I'm 17."
I grunted, barely acknowledging her attempt at humor. I was too busy scooping her little sister from the counter and trying to quiet the baby with a few crumbs of cake.
Now, 11 years later, as I watch the small girl on the screen giggle at the idea of being 17, the joke seems to be on me.
It's an oft-told tale in our family, the way their Dad was always hauling out the video camera, preserving us for posterity. There didn't have to be a special occasion. He'd sit for hours--one eye pressed to the viewfinder, the other on a basketball game on TV--recording his family's daily routine.
There's Alyssa, twirling around in a tutu, Danielle leaping from the couch to the table, Brittany trying to pull herself up on a chair. There are tricycle spills and sisterly spats and diaper changes and birthday parties. There's Mommy feeding the baby carrots, bandaging a toddler's knee, tying a ribbon in the hair of a 5-year-old wearing a droopy evening gown and plastic high heels.
I used to protest uselessly. I looked fat, disheveled; my hair wasn't combed, the house was a mess, my shirt was stained. Hardly the recorded image I wanted future generations to see.
Now I watch these tapes with a mixture of awe and wistfulness. I hardly notice the girth or the messy hair or the obviously unstylish clothes. I see, instead, a mother baking cookies, cuddling a baby, admonishing a toddler to stay out of the street. I hear a father encouraging a 4-year-old, as she wobbles by on her two-wheeled bike.
I watch sisters hugging, squabbling over a cookie; a baby dozing on her daddy's chest, covered with her sisters' kisses as she sleeps.
"Enjoy it while you can.... It goes by so fast."
I've always had to stifle my irritation at that advice, earnestly delivered by well-meaning parents whose children have invariably left the nest.
From my perspective, time is not speeding by at all. In fact, these years have seemed interminable--one long day after another; an unending, juggling marathon of motherhood.
Perhaps it is impossible to appreciate the speed at which childhood rushes past when you are in the midst of its demands ... making your 5,000th peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, wiping another runny nose, reading "Goodnight Moon" for the zillionth time. I did not remember how much I'd forgotten until I saw our former life play out on the TV screen.
I realize, though we couldn't have known it then, that we were living a life so good, so pure, so simple, it seems now like the American Dream. And though things have changed--the children have grown, their father has passed on, our lives have grown more complicated--I take comfort in knowing that the essence of who we are remains.
I glance over at my girls, sprawled on the couch, arms and legs draped across one another, amused by the images they see. The birthday girl still has the same broad smile and shining brown eyes; same sunny disposition and squeaky voice. The impatient toddler is now a restless 13-year-old, a daredevil in constant motion. The baby is still steady and determined, with an easy laugh and a stubborn streak.
Yet they fail to recognize their current selves in those little girls on the screen. "I can't believe how goofy I looked," my oldest says, laughing at the birthday girl on TV, with her pouf of curly hair, missing front teeth, black stretch pants and clip-on earrings.
And the sound that fills the room is the same as the laugh we heard coming from the TV, from a 6-year-old going on 17.
Sandy Banks' column runs Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.