The flickering images showed us the babies at around nine months in our back yard in California. Dressed only in diapers, Matthew hangs precariously at the edge of James’ green metal car, knees bending and straightening as he practices standing. In another scene Margaret Ann sits with a bone hanging half way out of her mouth, and her toothless gums mash up and down. It looks like a small chicken bone. I didn’t let them chew on chicken bones! Or did I? We laughed as I wondered again where on earth she found it. Sitting on the grass, she bobs up and down, and my mother-in-law, not a constant fixture in our lives then, but just visiting for the afternoon, pushes a lock of blonde curls out of Margaret Ann’s eyes. In the background, Paul and James race about pedaling the cars they had to leave behind in California, flashes of light and dark behind the babies. Then four-year-old Paul dances for the camera on the patio, a crazy, loose-limbed explosion of knees and elbows that mirrors his exuberance. James, then two and a half, rushes to join him in a clumsy imitation. They both have bare feet, something not possible outside on the farm.
|Paul and James with pedal car and block wall fence|
In another movie we see our going-away party hosted by my sister and her husband. It is cool that day in early May, and we are wearing light jackets and sweaters. My aunt—my mother’s sister—my cousins, and their families, gather in a small park near our house to say goodbye. In our living room at Gabi, we called out their names as we watched them ride the see-saw, kick a ball, and run around. A little cousin points at his chipped tooth. My aunt, his grandmother, looks inside his mouth, the soft curls of her short hair brushed by the breeze. No one looks sad. They are there to wish us well in our adventure, and we look forward to an exciting new life. Except for my sister’s husband, every adult there is an immigrant. They have known what it means to leave their home and familiar surroundings to travel to a distant land. They know some of the problems we will encounter, but they have confidence we will succeed. And so do we.
When George screened the California movies against our living-room wall at Gabi that winter, the only sound was our exclamations and laughter as we watched our younger selves. In those silent movies we could not hear sirens in the distance, traffic roar past our front door, nor war protestors of that time chant: “Hell No, We Won’t Go.” Nowhere did we hear angry voices tell immigrants, “Go back where you came from!” And there was no slow pan of bumper stickers that declare: “America: Love it or Leave it.”
All of those memories lay dormant as we continued to see what we wanted to see: a happy family in a sunny climate with few worries. We watched the movies over and over, and they kept those memories fresh. They reminded us of the house where we used to live, the people we had left behind, and the independence we had once enjoyed. But they portrayed an image that was circumscribed, scaled down to the viewfinder of the camera. Gradually the off-camera scenes and sounds and feelings faded from our minds, and those happy fragments of flickering light were the images of California we retained. The ground outside our door is washed clean of dust, and leaves, and bird droppings. Our patch of grass shines green under small, bare feet that yield to uneven ground, strengthening arches and tendons. The block wall around the playing children contains them and bars unwanted intrusion. Their silent laughter, reflected on the white paint of our living room wall at Gabi, seduced us all and scattered the seeds of homesickness.
|Paul with Matthew and James with Margaret Ann, taken in our California back yard.|