May 1, 1998

Family Films

Filed under: Family — schroder @ 12:00 pm

Right after I was born, my father bought an 8mm movie camera. I never knew if his primary motivation for the purchase was for his work as a gastroenterologist at Emory or to record his idyllic family lifestyle out in what we then called “the country” and now call “Sandy Springs.”

Certainly, viewing the movies provided no answer to the question. Halfway through a film of my sisters going off to a prom or my brothers opening up Christmas presents, the image suddenly would switch to a tightly cropped shot of the esophagus or stomach lining of one of his patients. In 1966, Raquel Welch starred in the movie “Fantastic Voyage,” about a medical team that was shrunk and inserted inside a patient’s body. My friends were fascinated, but I felt like I had already seen it.

Dad_and_thomas

When I was 10 and 11, I would host “movie nights” for my family, setting up a theater in our basement and playing the old newsreels. Eventually, the films were tossed in an old box in my dad’s tool room, left there to languish for a couple of decades.

One night, near the end of his life, Dad walked into my brother Jack’s house for dinner, shoved the box toward him and said, “Here, you’ll know what to do with these.” And he did.

This past Christmas, Jack gave each of us a videotape.

The films had been edited and enhanced with two new dimensions. He had the images set to appropriate music – ranging from the wistful sounds of “Titanic” and “Gone with the Wind” to ’50s and ’60s rock ’n’ roll classics – and provided a modest level of voice-over introductions.

During the holidays, I watched the film with my two teenage children, who are somewhat disconnected from my side of the family because they now live in Charlotte, N.C., with my ex-wife. I usually struggle to find activities on our weekends that will interest all three of us. But they were transfixed. Somewhere between the then-rare color footage of my parents’ 1939 wedding, the scenes of me carrying cats and footballs as a toddler and awkward moments of my sisters greeting their dates, my kids grasped a better understanding of who are all these people who gather at our overwhelmingly large family parties.

Most amazing to us all was the life we lived in the ridges overlooking the Chattahoochee River in the 1950s. Dad spent hours each week driving the children to school and then going to work at Emory University. He loved the long commute down Riverside Drive and Johnson’s Ferry – seeing only one or two houses before he got to Roswell Road. As the family grew older, he reluctantly agreed to move us back into Buckhead. But we all knew how much he loved his little Eden, now covered with modern homes in a development called North Harbor in Sandy Springs.

Watching the videotape, the kids were getting antsy as it wound on through beach trips, traditional Thanksgiving Day walks and the introductions of my brothers’ wives, but a little treasure awaited them at the end. Before he had put the movie camera up on a shelf for the last time, Dad arranged for the recording of one last scene.

My children and I watched as Dad lifted a glass of champagne and offered a welcoming kiss to a woman who would become my wife – and a few years later, their mother. They fell silent, but I could tell that Dad’s decades-long filmmaking hobby had, in just a couple of seconds, recorded a moment that will help them feel a part of a family, no matter how distant we may seem.

Photo: My father, Jack Spalding Schroder, with my son, Thomas Spalding Schroder

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